The Great Pumpkin Shortage may have you grumbling over the price of mashed gourd this Thanksgiving, but if it weren’t for our distant ancestors, America’s favorite nutmeg latte scapegoat wouldn’t even exist.
That’s right—according to a new scientific study, our prized fall flavoring agent could have gone extinct long ago. But by winning the hearts of the most invasive species on planet Earth—us—the humble pumpkin and its cousins managed to persist against the odds.
Over 10,000 years ago, wild squashes and gourds belonging to the genus Cucurbita were far too bitter for human taste buds. But these colorful fall vegetables were a favorite snack among North American megafauna, including mammoths and giant sloths, who dispersed their seeds far and wide. Alas, it was an ill-fated partnership. As America’s megafauna disappeared at the beginning of the Holocene, so did many Cucurbita species. The future was looking grim.
But then, an unlikely rescue: Humans began eating the wayward vegetables. As a new genetic analysis of 91 Cucurbita species shows, squash were independently domesticated in several parts of north America, beginning about 10,000 years ago—right around the same time that their megafaunal dispersers vanished. It’s not clear what exactly changed our minds on Cucurbita squashes—perhaps a few lucky strains had mutations that made them just a wee bit more palatable. Once the Cucurbita clan caught our attention, selective breeding took its course, and voila, rotund orange gourds that pair perfectly with cinnamon and sugar.
From the brink of extinction, the pumpkin’s ancestors managed to worm their way into the hearts and minds of the one species that could not only rescue them, but create an international marketing sensation in their image. Clearly, the pumpkin did a few things right. It can thank us for doing the rest.
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