Written by Samuel Phineas Upham
Dates were first cultivated in the Middle East, in hot climates where most plants would not be able to grow. The date has many culinary and pharmaceutical uses, and the fruit is packed full of high amounts of sugar. Three quarters of the date crops produced in the entire world occur in the Middle East, putting initial cultivation of the plant somewhere around 7,000 years ago, which would make dates older than Babylonians.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where cultivation took place for the first time, but food historians speculate it happened near North Africa or India. It may have also started in the Persian Gulf, or it may have moved there through trade.
The Greeks called them daktulos, which means “finger,” after the shape of the fruit. The Romans had a fondness for dates as well, which they imported from the East, with the best dates coming from modern day Palestine. The Spaniards brought them to the New World along with crops like wheat, where the missionaries carried dates all over the Americas.
A single date tree can produce up to 440 pounds of crops, making them invaluable to desert dwellers. The Egyptians believed the date was sacred to their sun god Ra, and that it was symbolic of both life and death. Pastry cooks later used dates to synthesize syrup, which they used in the cakes they made to sweeten them.
Ancient doctors also prescribed dates as a laxative, and nobles would opt to be buried with the fruit to promote wealth in the afterlife.