Jack-o’-lanterns, pumpkin pie, whatever that orange stuff is with the marshmallows on top that your grandmother serves during Thanksgiving: the fall months don’t seem that hospitable to pumpkins and squashes. It’s the time of year those otherwise neglected vegetables finally see their demise. But it turns out all these squashes should actually be thanking us during Thanksgiving. New research suggests that if it wasn’t for human cultivation, pumpkins, squashes and gourds probably would be extinct.
Entitled “Gourds and squashes adapted to megafaunal extinction and ecological anachronism through domestication” – which is about as exciting as you should expect an academic paper on the history of squashes to be titled – a team led by researchers from Penn State looked at the history of how pumpkins, et al, evolved.
Tens of thousands of years ago, the large fruits of these plants with their hard rinds adapted so animals could eat them and thus have their seeds spread. “We have evidence from wild Cucurbita seeds in mastodon dung deposits going back 30,000 years,” lead author Logan Kistler told Popular Science. As these large mammals began to go extinct around 14,000 years ago, the squashes could have gone with them. But humans, who were just arriving on the scene around that time, took a fondness to the plants, which beyond being eaten, could also be used as containers and other tools. Though many species of squash didn’t make it, about 10,000 years ago a long process of domestication began, with humans coming to save the day.
“One of the common types of canned pumpkin that a lot of people in the U.S. will be opening up for pies this season has no known wild counterpart [today],” said Kistler, explaining just how much human intervention has influenced the pumpkin. Yes, bow before us, pumpkins. We are your gods!