Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) History

Fruit from the Oases of Mesopotamia

Date Palm Trees, in Deir el-Balah, Gaza Strip
General view of a field of loaded date palm trees (Phoenix dactylifera) on October 16, 2008 in the Deir el-Balah town in the central Gaza Strip. Abid Katib / Getty Images News / Getty Images

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) is one of about 14 recognized species of the genus Phoenix, and it is one of the most important crops in the world today. The genus is widespread in tropical and subtropical regions of Africa and southern Asia. The date palm is the tallest of the species, reaching over 30 meters (~100 feet) in height; the palm plant has multiple clustering trunks, although often cultivators clip off the offshoots for propagation elsewhere.

Date palms come in male and female plants, and both are required for fertilization. The leaves of a date palm are pinnate and V-shaped, measuring between 3-6 m (10-20 ft) in length.

There are approximately 3,000 different date palm cultivar names used for date palms in the world, although scholars believe many are probably synonyms. Date cultivars are grouped by the texture of their fruit under normal ripening conditions, as soft, semi-dry or dry. Cultivars are often also grouped by when their fruit ripen: early, mid-season and late.

Date Fruits

Date fruits come in a variety of colors from honey and amber through dark reds, browns and blacks. Domesticated date palm fruits vary in shape and size, from 2-60 grams (.7-2.1 ounces) in weight and from 40-100 millimeters (1.5-4 inches) in size, and the fruits grow significantly larger in P. dactylifera than other Phoenix species.

Dates reach their full fruit-bearing potential at about 10 years of age, and on average, continue to bear fruit for 40-50 years.

Some dates can continue producing fruit for 100 years, but as such trees grow so tall and the fruit becomes more and more difficult to reach, they are often cut down. Date palms flower typically once a year, although in very wet years they can flower twice.

Benefits of Dates

The primary benefit of the date palm is ecological.

In deserts, date palms grow in oases, where the trees help create and sustain a micro-climate suitable for agriculture and livestock raising. Oases are "islands of greenery" (Tengberg) in the hot deserts of North Africa and southwestern Asia, where they provide economic and symbolic footholds in an otherwise hostile environment.

Date fruits are high-energy and can be picked fresh and eaten, as well as easily sun-dried for long-term storage. They can be pressed into a date cake for easy transportation; made into syrup and fermented into date wine (laqmi) or vinegar; and the pits can be burned as fuel, which produces an edible stock for animals.

The stems of the trees can be used as construction wood; the leaves' midribs are suitable for fencing material and the leaves themselves can be woven into baskets. Fibers from the leaf bases are used for making ropes and baskets, packaging and padding.

Domestication History

Date palms were likely originally domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of Mesopotamia, approximately 7,000 years ago. The domestic date palm was produced from a wild version of the same name, some of which have been found today in North Africa and the Middle and Near East.

Wild dates can hybridize with cultivars, and are morphologically quite similar to the domesticated forms. The main difference is size of the fruit.

Evidence found in Mesopotamia associated with domesticated palms includes the planting of date groves, date palms planted by gender, and free-flowing irrigation and other water management structures. Analysis of the date palm genome is currently underway, and early reports (Aranezhad et al. and Zehdi et al.) indicate a significant difference between North African and Middle Eastern date palms, suggesting two separate domestication events, although early African sites have yet to be identified.

Textual Evidence

The scientific name "Phoenix" is a reference to Phoenicia, "land of palms". Additional evidence for date palm domestication is found in engravings on cylinder seals and texts illustrating the date palm in Sumerian Mesopotamia beginning ca 2500 BC.

The old Akkadian word for ripened and plucked dates is suluppû; dried or perhaps fresh dates were called uhinnu in cuneiform script. Butê cakes were made from a combination of dates, pomegranates, raisins and figs, and in Neo-Babylonian (ca 1000 BC) times, giddê was a cake made from dates, emmer wheat and sesame.

Archaeological Sites

Evidence of early date palm cultivation are found in date groves in oases in the Fertile Crescent and Arabia.

  • Abu Dhabi:: Dalma 11 (4550-5290 cal BC)
  • Iran: Tepe Gaz Tavila (5400-4800 BC)
  • Iraq: Tell el-Ouelli (5th millennium BC) and Eridu (4th millennium BC)
  • Palestine: Teleilat Ghassul (3700-3500 BC and Jericho (3200 BC)
  • Pakistan: Mohenjo Daro (3,000 BC)
  • Kuwait: H3 (second half of the 6th millennium BC)Dilmun culture sites of Failaka (2000 BC)
  • Bahrain: Qala't al Bahrain (1475 BC)

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Plant Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Arabnezhad H, Bahar M, Mohammadi HR, and Latifian M. 2012. Development, characterization and use of microsatellite markers for germplasm analysis in date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.). Scientia Horticulturae 134(0):150-156. doi: 10.1016/j.scienta.2011.11.032

Hammadi H, Vendramin GG, and Ali F.

2011. Microsatellite diversity among Tunisian date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) subpopulations. Pakistani Journal of Botany 43(2):1257-1264.

Johnson DV. 2011. Introduction: Date Palm Biotechnology from Theory to Practice. In: Jain SM, Al-Khayri JM, and Johnson DV, editors. Date Palm Biotechnology. Netherlands: Springer p 1-11.

Krueger RR. 2011. Date Palm Germplasm. In: Jain SM, Al-Khayri JM, and Johnson DV, editors. Date Palm Biotechnology: Springer Netherlands. p 313-336.

Nesbitt M. 1993. Archaeobotanical evidence for early Dilmun diet at Saar, Bahrain. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 4(1):20-47.

Rhouma S, Zehdi-Azouzi S, Dakhlaoui-Dkhil S, Ould Mohamed Salem A, Othmani A, Cherif E, Marrakchi M, and Trifi M. 2010. Genetic Variation in the Tunisian Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.). In: Ramawat KG, editor. Desert Plants. Berlin Heidelberg: Springer p355-370.

Tengberg M. 2012. Beginnings and early history of date palm garden cultivation in the Middle East. Journal of Arid Environments 86(0):139-147. doi: 10.1016/j.jaridenv.2011.11.022

Yilmaz H, Akkemik U, and Karagoz S. 2013. Identification of plant figures on stone statues and sarcophaguses and their symbols: the Hellenistic and Roman periods of the eastern Mediterranean basin in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 13(2):135-145.

Zehdi S, Cherif E, Rhouma S, Santoni S, Hannachi AS, and Pintaud JC. 2012. Molecular polymorphism and genetic relationships in date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.): The utility of nuclear microsatellite markers.

Scientia Horticulturae 148(0):255-263. doi: 10.1016/j.scienta.2012.10.011

Zehdi-Azouzi S, Rhouma S, Dkkhil-Dakhlaoui S, Salem AOM, Cherif E, Othmani A, Marrakchi M, and Trifi M. 2011. Polymorphism and Genetic Relationship in Date Palm Using Molecular Markers. In: Jain SM, Al-Khayri JM, and Johnson DV, editors. Date Palm Biotechnology. Netherlands: Springer p407-425.