To taste a watermelon is to know “what the angels eat,” Mark Twain proclaimed.
The angels, however, would have gagged if they had eaten the watermelon’s wild ancestor—a bitter fruit with hard, pale-green flesh. Generations of selective breeding, spanning several countries and cultures, produced the sweet red fruit that’s now a common sight on picnic tables.
Much of this epic history has been lost to antiquity. But Harry Paris, a horticulturalist at the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, has spent years assembling clues—including ancient Hebrew texts, artifacts in Egyptian tombs, and medieval illustrations—that have enabled him to chronicle the watermelon’s astonishing 5,000-year transformation.
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Scientists agree that the watermelon’s progenitor—the ur-watermelon, if you will—was cultivated in Africa before spreading north into Mediterranean countries and, later, to other parts of Europe.
But, that’s where the consensus ends. Did the ancestral watermelon originally grow in Western Africa? Southern Africa? Northeastern Africa? The theories are, literally, all over the map.
“The history has been screwed up from the very outset,” says Paris, who places the blame on generations of taxonomists, stretching back to the 18th century, who hopelessly muddled melon classification.
Even the name for the modern watermelon—Citrullus lanatus—is wrong. Lanatus means “hairy” in Latin and was originally the name applied to the fuzz-covered citron melon (Cirtrullus amalus).
The citron melon, which grows in southern Africa, is one popular candidate for the watermelon’s ancient ancestor. But Paris is doubtful. He’s found evidence that the Egyptians began growing watermelon crops around 4,000 years ago, which predates farming in southern Africa.
Contestant number two is the egusi melon from western Africa. Again, Paris is skeptical. Egusis weren’t cultivated for their flesh, but for their edible seeds—the one part of the modern watermelon that nobody wants.
Paris says the true ancestor of the modern watermelon is indigenous to northeastern Africa: citrullus lanatus var. colocynthoides, known 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.
People have been eating watermelons for millennia. We know this because archaeologists found watermelon seeds, along with the remnants of other fruits, at a 5,000-year-old settlement in Libya.
Seeds, as well as paintings of watermelons, also have been discovered in Egyptian tombs built more than 4,000 years ago, including King Tut’s. One tomb painting, in particular, stands out. The watermelon depicted in the image is not round like the wild fruit. Instead, it has the now-familiar oblong shape, suggesting that it was a cultivated variety.
A fair question to ask is why the Egyptians began cultivating wild watermelons in the first place. The fruit was hard and unappetizing, tasting either bitter or bland. Yet somebody at some point said, “Hey, let’s grow more of these!”
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