Where did the watermelon originate


To style a watermelon is to know “what the angels eat,” Mark Twain proclaimed.

The angels, nevertheless, would have gagged if they’d eaten the watermelon’s wild ancestor—a bitter fruit with exhausting, pale-green flesh. Generations of selective breeding, spanning a number of nations and cultures, produced the candy pink fruit that’s now a typical sight on picnic tables.

A lot of this epic historical past has been misplaced to antiquity. However Harry Paris, a horticulturalist on the Agricultural Analysis Group in Israel, has spent years assembling clues—together with historic Hebrew texts, artifacts in Egyptian tombs, and medieval illustrations—which have enabled him to chronicle the watermelon’s astonishing 5,000-year transformation.

Who’s Your Daddy?

Scientists agree that the watermelon’s progenitor—the ur-watermelon, if you’ll—was cultivated in Africa earlier than spreading north into Mediterranean nations and, later, to different elements of Europe.

However, that’s the place the consensus ends. Did the ancestral watermelon initially develop in Western Africa? Southern Africa? Northeastern Africa? The theories are, actually, all around the map.

“The history has been screwed up from the very outset,” says Paris, who locations the blame on generations of taxonomists, stretching again to the 18th century, who hopelessly muddled melon classification.

Even the title for the fashionable watermelon—Citrullus lanatus—is fallacious. Lanatus means “hairy” in Latin and was initially the title utilized to the fuzz-covered citron melon (Cirtrullus amarus).

The citron melon, which grows in southern Africa, is one widespread candidate for the watermelon’s historic ancestor. However Paris is uncertain. He’s discovered proof that the Egyptians started rising watermelon crops round 4,000 years in the past, which predates farming in southern Africa.

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Contestant quantity two is the egusi melon from western Africa. Once more, Paris is skeptical. Egusis weren’t cultivated for his or her flesh, however for his or her edible seeds—the one a part of the fashionable watermelon that no person needs.

Paris says the true ancestor of the fashionable watermelon is indigenous to northeastern Africa: citrullus lanatus var. colocynthoides, referred to as gurum in Sudan and gurma in Egypt.

“Why go all the way to western Africa, to a country like Nigeria, when you have these watermelons still growing wild in the deserts of Egypt and Sudan to this very day?” says Paris.

Pharaonic Fruit

Folks have been consuming watermelons for millennia. We all know this as a result of archaeologists discovered watermelon seeds, together with the remnants of different fruits, at a 5,000-year-old settlement in Libya.

Seeds, in addition to work of watermelons, even have been found in Egyptian tombs constructed greater than 4,000 years in the past, together with King Tut’s. One tomb portray, particularly, stands out. The watermelon depicted within the picture just isn’t spherical just like the wild fruit. As an alternative, it has the now-familiar rectangular form, suggesting that it was a cultivated selection.

A good query to ask is why the Egyptians started cultivating wild watermelons within the first place. The fruit was exhausting and unappetizing, tasting both bitter or bland. But any individual sooner or later mentioned, “Hey, let’s grow more of these!”

The reply, in line with Paris, is within the fruit’s title: water. Not like different fruits, watermelons might stay edible for weeks and even months if stored in a cool, shaded space. A Nationwide Geographic correspondent visiting Sudan in 1924 noticed watermelons being collected and saved this manner in the course of the dry season, once they could be periodically pummeled to extract their water.

Paris believes the Egyptians have been drawn to the fruit for a similar cause. And, he provides, it’s why we discover remnants of watermelons in tombs, “These Egyptian pharaohs, when they died they had a long journey ahead of them so they needed a source of water—and what would that source of water be?” says Paris.

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As soon as the Egyptians started cultivating watermelons, Paris suspects the primary trait they sought to vary was the style. Only one dominant gene was accountable for the bitter taste, so it could have been comparatively straightforward to breed it out of the inhabitants.

After that, watermelon growers started selectively breeding for different traits. In that respect, the tomb portray of the rectangular melon, which is proven resting on prime of a meals platter, reveals a clue to how the melon was altering. Because it was being served recent, it will need to have been tender sufficient to chop and eat. Gone was the exhausting flesh and the necessity to pound it into watery pulp.

However whereas the fruit was not exhausting and bitter, it had not but fulfilled its future because the candy, tender watermelon that we get pleasure from at present.

Hitting the Highway

After 2000 B.C., the watermelon’s historic path should be teased out of medical books, travelogs, recipes, and non secular texts. By finding out and evaluating descriptions from a number of sources, Paris was capable of deduce the traditional names for the watermelon and monitor its many makes use of.

Writings from 400 B.C. to 500 A.D. point out the watermelon unfold from northeastern Africa to Mediterranean nations. Paris speculates that, along with commerce and bartering, the watermelon’s territorial enlargement was aided by its distinctive position as a pure canteen for recent water on lengthy voyages.

The traditional Greek title for the watermelon was the pepon. Physicians, together with Hippocrates and Dioscorides, praised its many therapeutic properties. It was prescribed as a diuretic and as a technique to deal with youngsters with heatstroke by putting the cool, moist rind on their heads.

The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, was additionally a fan, describing the pepo as a refrigerant maxime—a particularly cooling meals—in his first century encyclopedia, Historia Naturalis.

Paris confirmed that the traditional Hebrew title for watermelons was avattihim. He discovered a trove of clues in three codices of Jewish Regulation that have been compiled millennia in the past in Israel: the Mishnah, Tosefta, and the Jerusalem Talmud. “The rabbis back then didn’t sit in the Yeshiva all day,” says Paris “They were out with the people. They knew agriculture.”

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The texts on tithing—the mandated follow of placing apart a portion of crops for monks and the poor—have been particularly informative. As an illustration, farmers have been instructed to not stack avatttihim, however lay them out individually. That’s a key indicator that avattihim have been watermelons, because the rinds have been notoriously fragile.

Probably the most thrilling reveal within the Hebrew writings was a tract, written round 200 A.D., which positioned the tithed watermelons in the identical class as figs, grapes, and pomegranates.

And what do all of these fruits have in widespread? They’re candy. By the third century, the watermelon had graduated from desert crop to dessert. And if candy watermelons have been in Israel, they’d possible unfold throughout the Mediterranean.

Style the Rainbow

Descriptions from that period describe ripe watermelons as having a yellowish inside. Likewise, a Byzantine-era mosaic in Israel, from round 425 A.D., depicts what seems to be a minimize watermelon with yellow-orange flesh.

In subsequent years, the watermelon would tackle its acquainted pink hue. That’s as a result of the gene for the colour pink is paired with the gene that determines the sugar content material. As watermelons have been bred to grow to be even sweeter, their inside progressively modified colour.

The primary colour sketches of the red-fleshed, candy watermelon in Europe could be present in a medieval manuscript, the Tacuinum Sanitatis. Italian the Aristocracy within the 14th century commissioned lavishly illustrated copies of this textual content, which was a information to wholesome residing primarily based on an eleventh century Arabic manuscript.

The Tacuinum Sanitatis is wealthy in horticultural imagery. A few of the illustrations depict the distinctive oblong-shaped, green-striped watermelon being harvested and bought, with a couple of minimize open revealing the pink inside. One scene depicts a farmer, a cheerful look on his face, as he drinks out of 1 finish of the melon. Lastly, a fruit match for the angels. At the moment, 100 million tons of watermelon are grown yearly worldwide.

“Have your grandparents ever said to you, ‘You never had it so good’? “ asks Paris. “They were right. With the progress we’ve made—5,000 years of watermelon domestication—we’ve never had it so good.”

Folllow Mark Strauss on Twitter.

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