Watermelon's Ancient Egyptian Origins

Americans love watermelon. According to American Lifestyle Magazine, Americans buy more than $150 million worth of watermelon just to celebrate the Fourth of July each year. You might be forgiven then for thinking of watermelons as a classic American fruit. It turns out that the bright reds and greens of watermelon were likely first domesticated in ancient Egypt.

According to a genetic study published in 2019 by researchers at the University of Munich, Egyptians were planting, harvesting, and enjoying watermelons that were similar to what we eat today more than 3,500 years ago. There are even illustrations on ancient Egyptian buildings that depict the oval-shaped watermelons with bands of dark and light green running along them (via New Scientist). It's hard to say what these ancient fruits would have tasted like, but researchers believed they would have been very close to a modern watermelon thanks to a few clues found in their genetic code.

Genetic data told the story of the first domestic watermelons

Researchers were able to study the genetics of ancient watermelons using a leaf found in a mummy's tomb (via Earth). The tomb was originally discovered in 1876, but a portion of it was preserved well enough for modern researchers. With a partial sample from the leaf, they were able to decode two key genomes that told them a lot about ancient watermelons.

According to New Scientist, it's long been debated where watermelons were first domesticated. While some believed it was in Africa, many of the varieties found there don't resemble their modern counterparts. They often have a bitter flavor due to a compound called cucurbitacin, and are often found with white flesh instead of red. The genome of the ancient leaf told researchers that neither of those conditions were present in the watermelons domesticated by Egyptians however. This led researchers to believe that the Egyptians were among the first to domesticate watermelon 3500 years ago (via the study from theĀ University of Munich).

One of the decoded genes showed that there was a mutation which prevented the production of cucurbitacins. Another part of the genetic code also allowed for production of a compound called lycopene. This compound is a carotenoid and antioxidant that is also found in tomatoes (via WebMD). Most importantly, it's responsible for the red color of both fruits. This meant that ancient Egyptian watermelons would have all the characteristics we associate with their most common modern descendants.