Skip to content

Tracing the Watermelon’s Roots to Africa

About 4,300 years ago, someone drew a melon on the wall of a tomb in Egypt. It’s big, fat, green and generously striped: Everything you’d expect a watermelon to be. It’s next to grapes and other fruits, suggesting it was eaten back then as we eat watermelon now, raw and for its sweet taste. This detail of a painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep in Saqqara was a puzzle. While scientists believed that watermelon’s wild ancestors came from the African continent, no one knew of a wild watermelon anywhere near the Nile Valley. Where did this melon come from? One theory held that the West African egusi melon, grown for its seeds, might be a descendant of watermelon’s most recent wild ancestor, suggesting watermelon’s origins were on that side of the continent. But a paper published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences finds that the small, round Kordofan melon, native to the Kordofan region of Sudan, is much more closely genetically related to our modern watermelon.