Domestication Saved the Pumpkin (and Squash)

The pumpkin in that holiday pie wouldn’t be here today without domestication

Pumpkin gathering
Humans enjoying the Curcubita fruits they helped save, after probably contributing to their wild cousins' demise Tom Stewart/CORBIS

After gorging on whatever kind of Thanksgiving feast people may eat next week, stuffed revelers should take a moment to give thanks to the quirk of history that kept squash and its relatives in our pies, on our plates, flavoring our drinks and off the list of endangered species.

About 10,000 years ago, pumpkins, squash and other members of the Curcubita genus once came dangerously close to extinction, reports Grennan Milliken for Popular Science. Only our ancient ancestor's drive to domesticate valuable crops and animals saved these gourds, according to the new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Milliken writes that the ancient Cucurbita varieties used to grow wild on the edges of floodplains and fields. And the massive munching mammals of the time—like mastodons and giant ground sloths—helped these fruits spread​ by clearing swaths of the ancient landscape and scattering the Cucurbita seeds.

Small animals avoided such hard-to-eat and (at the time) bitter and toxic flesh of the gourds. Yet the massive mammals, whose body mass was large enough to handle the poisonous gourds, were perfectly happy chomping down on the fruits' tough rinds, writes Ed Young for National Geographic.

“We have evidence from wild Cucurbita seeds in mastodon dung deposits going back 30,000 years,” Logan Kistler, lead author of the new study, tells Popular Science.

The team analyzed the genomes of 91 different Cucurbita species collected from dung and archeological sites, concluding that many went extinct about 10,000 years ago. This date coincides with the appearance of human hunters who, along with shifting climate, wiped out giant sloths and their ilk. And without human intervention, our beloved pumpkins would have gone with them.

According to the researchers' analysis, during this time people also started domesticating the gourds. At the time, they may have liked the gourds because of their strong rinds—using them as containers for food and drink. Though as they grew the gourds, people likely started favoring the fruit and selected for the more palatable, less bitter Curcubita.

The many hued, variously shaped fruit featured in fall decorations, the large pumpkins we carve and paint for Halloween, and the still larger ones that win competitions have few surviving wild cousins. And though people may have been partially responsible for the extinction of many squash and pumpkin lineages, we can also claim to be the saviors of the gourd.

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