A Seedy Slice of History: Here’s Where Watermelons Actually Came From

Watermelon Close Up

Just in time for picnic-table trivia, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences rewrites the origins of domesticated watermelons.

Using DNA from greenhouse-grown plants representing all species and hundreds of varieties of watermelon, scientists discovered that watermelons most likely came from wild crop progenitors in northeast Africa.

The study corrects a 90-year-old mistake that lumped watermelons into the same category as the South African citron melon. Instead, researchers, including a first author now at Washington University in St. Louis, found that a Sudanese form with non-bitter whitish pulp, known as the Kordofan melon (C. lanatus), is the closest relative of domesticated watermelons.

The genetic research is consistent with newly interpreted Egyptian tomb paintings that suggest the watermelon may have been consumed in the Nile Valley as a dessert more than 4,000 years ago.

“Based on DNA, we found that watermelons as we know them today — with sweet, often red pulp that can be eaten raw — were genetically closest to wild forms from west Africa and northeast Africa,” said Susanne S. Renner, honorary professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

Renner is an evolutionary biologist who recently joined Washington University after 17 years working as a professor at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, where she also served as the director of the Munich Botanical Garden and Munich herbarium.

Her lab has long focused on honey melons and cucumbers, but for the past 10 years she has turned to watermelons and bitter gourds.

The genetic information published in the new study — completed with colleagues from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Ithaca, New York; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London; and the University of Sheffield — could be useful for developing a more disease-resistant watermelon crop, Renner said.

“Today’s watermelon comes from a very small genetic stock and is highly susceptible to diseases and insect pests, including various mildews, other fungi, viruses, and nematodes [worms],” Renner said. “So far, we found variation in three disease resistance genes between the Kordofan melon and the domesticated watermelon. Breeders might use these and other insights from the genome.”

But some of the greatest takeaways from this study, Renner said, are related to the mobility of people and their cultural connections.

“It was the Egyptian tomb paintings that convinced me that the Egyptians were eating cold watermelon pulp,” Renner said. “Otherwise, why place those huge fruits on flat trays next to grapes and other sweet fruits?”

“Melons, cucumbers, and watermelons were domesticated several times” across human history, she said. “But to place these domestications in space and name is much more difficult than I thought 10 to 15 years ago. DNA from ancient seeds is already beginning to help.”

Reference: “A chromosome-level genome of a Kordofan melon illuminates the origin of domesticated watermelons” by Susanne S. Renner, Shan Wu, Oscar A. Pérez-Escobar, Martina V. Silber, Zhangjun Fei and Guillaume Chomicki, 24 May 2021, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2101486118

29 Comments on "A Seedy Slice of History: Here’s Where Watermelons Actually Came From"

  1. The Woke Snowflake | May 28, 2021 at 12:18 pm | Reply

    How dare you? Watermelons are a racist white supremacist dog whistle.

  2. Bonnie Davis | May 28, 2021 at 3:58 pm | Reply

    We do love our melons in the South. I am not sure how they got here but I’m glad they did.

  3. Eh woke snowflake ur trippin what does racist dogs an the other crap u mentioned have to do with an innocent fruit. Suck it an im not talking bout the fruit.

  4. The watermelon are so delicious and refreshing. I once lived in the Watermelon Capital of the world, Rocky Ford, Colorado. I don’t know if it still holds that title today, but in the 1960’s they had Fruit Stands selling them, 20 for $1. What a difference a day makes!

  5. I’m going to grow a ton of watermelon in my urban backyard this year

  6. Samiah Arshad | May 29, 2021 at 4:28 pm | Reply

    Impressive research

  7. Arvind Jadhav | May 30, 2021 at 4:29 am | Reply

    I think this is incredible research , passing on genes to different melons variety and it’s environmental travel through Middle East and SouthAfrica.

  8. A couple of my colleagues and I are going down to my uncles watermelon farm to do some genetic research.
    He has one of those highly active Lassie dogs that is always humping on something.
    One day my aunt sliced open a watermelon, and out popped a Mellon-collie baby.
    J’m sorry. We’re not reallly going to do any research. We’re just going to sit around, drink beer, and watch Lassie!

  9. This is all based on theory, correct? I see a lot of “believe” and “could” in the article explaining information collected, but not all the information has been gathered, how could it be, there are too many places on the planet that haven’t been researched enough or not at all to rule conclusively that these findings are fact of exact place of origin.

  10. @theboldanastasia | May 31, 2021 at 3:52 am | Reply

    I things good come from Egyptt 🥰
    Watermelon is an excellent source of grounding for the root chakra ♥️ Seeded ones are the best because the presence of God is validated in its creation . Ase’ 🍇🍋💕

  11. Yoo, LLCOOL i think it was supposed to be a joke dude, calm down. And if it wasn’t, than whatever, who cares. Stupid people will be stupid

  12. Where’d you find a seeded watermelon in the picture. The kind that have flooded the supermarkets are seedless and the difference is taste is significant. 🤔🤔🤔

  13. Whoever said watermelons are racist is an idiot.
    I love watermelons I love cassava melons even more.

  14. My grandfather used to grow the “yellow meat” (yellow flesh) kind of watermelons down south. They were sweeter than the red meat ones. Don’t know why they call the insides “meat” or “flesh”

  15. Jerry Snell | June 3, 2021 at 7:46 pm | Reply

    Watermelon is the best and it it is not racist unless you your self is racist

  16. That’s great information to be had here. I always had wondered how close the cucumber was related to the watermelon and vice a versa this is a great big bunch of research that’s a great thing to have around answered a handful of my questions simply by reading the article. Thanks for the info.

  17. Ken Phillips | June 4, 2021 at 4:35 am | Reply

    I lived in Turkey for two years and that country has some of the best watermelon that I have ever tasted. Funny how they don’t know anything about white or black racist. But they enjoy watermelon as much as we do.

  18. Oh chill the f out, snowflake. You’re just trying to start sh*t

  19. James Davis | June 5, 2021 at 8:49 am | Reply

    Nothing better than ice cold watermelon with lowarys season salt

  20. The dinosaurs ate wild melons and pumpkins years before man walked the earth. They was not prejudice back then they was herbivores! You possibly one of the idiots that thought a crazy white man should not try to sell fried chicken in Kentucky? I’m glad the late Colonel Sanders didn’t pay them no mind! Fried chicken ain’t prejudice people are! Fried chicken is just a good Sunday dinner. Melon is dessert! You may as well say Coca Cola is prejudice because their Christmas ads have a polar bear! Polar bears are white! Are they prejudice? They all white. I ain’t ever saw one hanging with a black bear? Even at the zoo! And what about Christians and Jews? The Democratic party be hating on Christians and Jews worse than Mel Gibson on a whisky bender! Woke Snowflake or just a flake? Get real. Your an idiot either way. And what about a black girl that only dates white guys? I know one! She said that black men were to abusive to her. Does that make her prejudice. Maybe? But don’t she still have the right to choose whom she dates? It’s a weird world we live in. But that’s only because there are so many weirdos in it and it’s getting weirder! Why don’t people talk about the self destructive force of mane made volcanoes? I’m talking about nuclear power plants. You never know when a volcano will blow. You may get some warning but sometimes they just blow! Just like 3 mile Island or Chernobyl. Some money hungry dick got to poison the planet to get rich and say it’s a problem for future generations! As long as the select few are well off screw everybody else? Maggots trying to kill a planet and feed off its remains. The planet is a living eco-system and it makes the melons grow. How healthy will the melons be when they glow in the dark? Or how about when you die of radiation poisoning from eating one?

  21. mark e demcovitz | June 5, 2021 at 1:21 pm | Reply

    In the state prison system; on Martin Luther king day they serve BIG pieces of fried chicken and HUGE slabs of watermelon! NO ONE CRIED “Racist”!Ask any ex-con.Gandi said:” Those who are preoccupied with racism, EMBRACE IT!”

  22. Laurance Davis | June 5, 2021 at 9:52 pm | Reply

    I think The Woke Snowflake is pulling our leg.😏

  23. Hermiston,Oregon grows the world’s Greatest Watermelons.

  24. ❣️ 🍈🍈 🍈🍈 especially 36ddz don’t care what color

  25. Back to Back | June 7, 2021 at 4:21 pm | Reply

    “Woke” Snowflake is indeed pulling your legs. Clearly they are quite the opposite of woke. But probably a “snowflake” as they get offended easily. But not a “snowflake” as in a liberal.

  26. I hate when I read A article with no answers! This is a waste of my time! I just wanted to know where they came from watermelons…. I guess we will never know that one!

  27. Arvind Jadhav- No where in the article was the Middle East mentioned. Egypt was then and is now and will always be in Africa. Period.

  28. Larry K/ That (Melon-collie baby)was very funny 😆 Thanks for the humor!
    LOVE watermelon (seeded and non/gmo please!)

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