Friday Food Findings: On Ancient Watermelons (and other crops)

Because it’s something every human experiences, food is one of the most foundational elements of culture. This also means that food trends can spread very quickly once they catch on, which ironically means that much of the food we consider to be emblematic of a given culture is often not all that old.

Take Sichuanese food, for instance – it feels like the people in Sichuan have always been eating those crimson-hued, heat-packed dishes like mapo doufu or yuxiang qiezi, but both items require chilli – and chilli didn’t arrive in Sichuan until the late 16th century. Or ramen, which is so utterly, ubiquitously Japanese in our time – except it’s a Chinese import, and one that’s been around for just over a century.

But it gets even weirder than that. Surely, even if we may bake a new shape of bread, or stir-fry tofu in exciting new ways, the ingredients themselves would remain unchanged, right? Well, as it turns out, no. Below, for example, is a painting in the 1600s of fruits, and that thing on the lower right is an opened watermelon.

A cornucopia of vaguely recognised greens. (Source)
A cornucopia of vaguely recognised greens. (Source)

In this article in Vox, James Nienhuis, an art historian, discusses the evolution of watermelons in human hands. Itself a relatively recent arrival to Europe, the watermelon’s colour has not always been there – it’s something we thought is pretty (and it is), and so human farmers have literally bred the colour into watermelon. A similar thing also happened to carrots, which are so familiarly and normally orange – except that, too, is a European thing, dating from the 1600s, and most probably from the Netherlands.

Before that, carrots were more often either yellow, cream coloured or a dark purple. A story has it that the Dutch, whose national colour is orange (the royal family of the Netherlands is the House of Orange-Nassau), began to cultivate the carrots, either as a sign of patriotism or as a gift to William of Orange, the founding father of the independent Netherlands. You can read more about the evolution and cultivation of carrots in this article from the Carrot Museum.

So how about other crops? Well, James Kennedy, an Australian chemist, has created a bunch of infographics that show the effects of artificial selection on many of the most common crops we eat today. His examination of the watermelon goes even farther back; it turns out that even before the watermelon was introduced to Europe, the Africans must have been tinkering with it for ages, turning it from mostly seed to mostly flesh:

(Source)
(Source)

And here’s the peach, the tender, blushing fruit which was originally a hard, waxy thing:

(Source)
(Source)

But perhaps most amazing, and most famous, is maize or sweetcorn. Hailing originally from Mexico and domesticated by the Olmec and Mayan peoples many thousands of years ago, it baffled botanists for a long while. You see, if maize was domesticated, it had to be domesticated from something. Domesticated wolves become dogs; small wild watermelons become domesticated, huge, juicy watermelons. But there’s no plant in Mexico that looks anything like maize… it was only in the 20th century that a possible ancestor was found, and it took decades to confirm that. It turns out maize is a domesticated form of teosinte, a shrubby wild grass. And over 9,000 years, the Mesoamericans managed to achieve the below:

Corn Evolution (James Kennedy)
(Source)

What does all this tell us? Well, when you consider all the fears about ‘Frankenfoods’ that are surging on headlines nowadays, it’s important to know this and keep a sense of perspective. Would you consider it a freakish mutation to eat a grain that’s swollen to 1000 times its natural size, is bright yellow instead of its natural blackish-brown? Well, enjoy that popcorn. We’ve always been subsisting on genetic manipulation – it’s what’s allowed us to build our civilisations and cultures, with all its wonderful variety of foods. And on that bombshell, have a good weekend!

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