How Native Americans Saved the Jack-o-Lantern

Can you imagine a Halloween celebration without the famous Jack-O-Lanterns?  Well, according to a new study just released, pumpkins and their cousins, squash and gourds, almost went extinct about 10,000 years ago.

An article on says, the original wild versions of the popular Thanksgiving and Christmas fruits actually did become extinct about that time, but the versions we enjoy each fall are survivors that had been domesticated by early humans who arrived in North America.

Prior to that time, the land we now know as the Americas was dominated by large mammals, many herbivores, such as the mastodon, giant sloths and something called a gomphothere, apparently a large elephant-like animal with jaws shaped like a shovel.

These mammoths dined on the pumpkin’s ancestors, because by being so large, they were among the few animals that could break the hard, tough rinds to devour the bitter tasting fruit inside.  Even the bitterness was not a problem to the large herbivores, probably they paid it little notice, since the fruit was readily available to them.

The wild-growing ancestor of the pumpkin and its family, Cucurbita, thrived on the edges of fields and floodplains across the American landscape.  The large herbivores acted as transports for seeds, consuming the fruits and depositing the seeds across the area as with their dung.

Then, between 13,500 and 14,500 years ago, humans began to arrive in the area, and naturally began to hunt and kill the large slow-moving giants for food.  A combination of over-hunting and climate shifting led to the extinction of the large mammals, and consequently the method of dispersal for the seeds of the Cucurbita.

Roughly 10,000 years back, the early Americans began to eat the less bitter versions of the fruit and the domestication of the product began.  Anthropologist Logan Kistler, lead author of the study and now a research fellow at the University of Warwick says it is likely that originally the hard rinds of the fruits were used as containers, perhaps as water vessels, but that led to spreading the seeds around as the large mammals had before.

The researchers say their studies show the domestication of the Cucurbita began in what is now Mexico and spread across North America as independent domestication events.

So, a great thank you is due to the early inhabitants of the Americas for your holiday squash casseroles and pumpkin pies.

The findings of the study by Penn State researchers were published in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.



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