Ancient texts, paintings reveal the evolution of watermelon


It is the classic go-to food for picnics and is often the food of choice for eating contests, but just where did the humble fruit we call the watermelon come from?

The folks at National Geographic, with the capable assistance of horticulturalist Harry Paris of the Agricultural Research Organization in Israel, set out to answer that exact question. Paris, the website explained, has spent years look at various ancient Hebrew Texts, Egyptian artifacts, and medieval illustrations as he tracked the 5,000 year evolution of the watermelon.

His findings, which were accepted for publication in the Annals of Botany earlier this year, show that watermelons (the Citrullus species) are native to Africa and have been cultivated there since ancient times. Seeds and other archaeological evidence of the fruits dated to roughly 5,000 years ago have been discovered in the northeastern part of that continent. Also, he added that a striped, large, oblong-shaped, fruit on a tray was found in a 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb.

“The diverse evidence… 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,” he wrote, before spreading to Mediterranean lands by approximately 2000 years ago.

What fruit was the forerunner of the modern melon?

According to Nat Geo, the progenitor of the watermelon may have been the citron melon, a fuzz-covered fruit that grows in southern Africa and may explain why the watermelon wound up being named Citrullus lanatus (lanatus means “hairy” in Latin). Or it may have been the egusi melon from western Africa, which was known primarily for its edible seeds.

Paris, however, believes that neither was the forerunner of the modern melon. Instead, he thinks it was indigenous to northeastern Africa: citrullus lanatus var. colocynthoides, known as gurum in Sudan and gurma in Egypt. When Egyptians began cultivating wild watermelons, they would have been “hard and unappetizing, tasting either bitter or bland,” Nat Geo noted.

So why did they grow them? The answer, Paris believes, is due the fact that watermelons could remain edible for several weeks or even a few months if they were kept cool in shaded areas. As the dry season emerged, the fruits would have been pummeled to extract the water within them, and they were placed in tombs to keep dead pharaohs hydrated on their “long journeys.”

The tomb painting of the oblong melon also indicates that the watermelon’s taste changed over time, from bitter to sweet and tender. Paris believes that this was the result of selective breeding by watermelon growers. Over time it spread from Africa to Mediterranean countries via bartering and continued to evolve, eventually becoming the fruit that we know and love today.


(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)