Origins of the sweet dessert watermelon (Research in Context)
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Fancy a cool slice of watermelon?

This study uncovers the north-eastern African origins of the dessert watermelon and concludes that it was is domesticated there over 4000 years ago.

Origins of the sweet dessert watermelon
Origins of the sweet dessert watermelon

Watermelons, Citrullus species (Cucurbitaceae), are native to Africa and have been cultivated since ancient times. The fruit flesh of wild watermelons is watery, but typically hard-textured, pale-coloured and bland or bitter. The familiar sweet dessert watermelon, C. lanatus, with non-bitter, tender, well-coloured flesh, has a narrow genetic base, suggesting that they originated from a series of selection events in a single ancestral population. A recent paper in Annals of Botany investigates where dessert watermelons originated and the time frame during which sweet dessert watermelons emerged.

Archaeological remains of watermelons, mostly seeds, that date from 5000 years ago have been found in northeastern Africa. An image of a large, striped, oblong fruit on a tray has been found in an Egyptian tomb that dates to at least 4000 years ago. The Greek word pepon, Latin pepo and Hebrew avattiah of the first centuries CE were used for the same large, thick-rinded, wet fruit which, evidently, was the watermelon. Hebrew literature from the end of the second century CE and Latin literature from the beginning of the sixth century CE present watermelons together with three sweet fruits: figs, table grapes and pomegranates. Wild and primitive watermelons have been observed repeatedly in Sudan and neighbouring countries of northeastern Africa.

The diverse evidence, combined, indicates that northeastern Africa is the centre of origin of the dessert watermelon, that watermelons were domesticated for water and food there over 4000 years ago, and that sweet dessert watermelons emerged in Mediterranean lands by approximately 2000 years ago. Next-generation ancient-DNA sequencing and state-of-the-art genomic analysis offer opportunities to rigorously assess the relationships among ancient and living wild and primitive watermelons from northeastern Africa, modern sweet dessert watermelons and other Citrullus taxa.

AJ Cann

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

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