Where did the watermelon come from? When and where watermelon farming started is unclear. Certain images in Nile Valley tombs dating to about 4,360 years ago archaeologists suspect were exactly this fruit its predecessor. The team suggests it was eaten as a dessert. The old images of the putative watermelon are a key pointer. Competing hypotheses for watermelon’s origin ranged all over Africa. And now a team publishing in PNAS believes it has the answer.
In ancient times people were hunters. And early farmers also sustained the family with hunting and gathering. Farming is a recent affair. The mysterious domestication of watermelon, the detective work into the fruit’s past was based on the iconography but, crucially, also on genomic information on the various members of the Citrullus family. The aim to find the closest relative of the watermelon, Citrullus lanatus, subspecies Vulgaris. The Sudanese Kordofan melon the genetic studies pointed as the closest relative of the watermelon. It could be the fruit from where watermelon descended. The Kordofan melon has a whitish pulp.
Knowing the original species could be an important resource for future watermelon breeding programs. “Identifying them, however, is difficult because of extinction, hybridization, and the challenge of distinguishing them from feral forms,” explains Prof. Susanne Renner of the University of Munich and colleagues. According to the team, their analysis implies that early farmers brought into cultivation already non-bitter watermelons and that is different from the domesticated Cucurbitaceae crops.
In Israel, watermelon is popular but hardly a staple. In central Asia, it is one of the top 10 crops, the team explains. Watermelon can be grown from cuttings, but a reason to know the fruit’s origin is to expand the options for breeding hardy stock. The researchers note that the watermelon and Kordofan are both non-bitter and its pink color, and add that both the sweetness typical of the fruit today. Watermelon can be obtained with yellow flesh inside. It lacks lycopene but is richer in beta-carotene.