Red origin: New study traces roots of summer fave watermelon, mentioned in Bible

In Numbers 11: 5-6, the freed Hebrews, fed on a manna-only diet, lament the rich variety of food they gave up in leaving Egypt — including watermelon

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Cold and refreshing watermelon (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Cold and refreshing watermelon (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

The origin story behind watermelon just got juicier. From seeds in King Tut’s tomb to a cameo mention in the Bible, archaeologists and historians have tracked thousands of years of evidence for Egypt being the progenitor of the refreshing red fruit. However, new research is cracking that theory and suggesting that the ubiquitous summer treat is most related to a wild — white — Sudanese variety.

In a new study led by Susanne Renner, a botanist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), a team of scientists genetically sequenced today’s commonly found watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) alongside six wild watermelon species, including the Sudanese Kordofan melon (C. lanatus subsp. cordophanus).

“Using an integrative approach, we discovered that a Sudanese form of melon with nonbitter whitish pulp, known as the Kordofan melon, is the closest relative of domesticated watermelons and a possible progenitor,” write the authors.

This white melon differed early from its relative, the cucumber, the authors write: “Our analyses imply that early farmers brought into cultivation already nonbitter watermelons, different from other domesticated Cucurbitaceae crops such as cucumber.”

The word watermelon is mentioned only once in the Bible. In Numbers 11: 5-6, the freed Hebrews, fed on a manna-only diet, lament the rich variety of food they gave up in leaving Egypt. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost, the cucumbers and the watermelons, and the leeks, onions and garlic…” According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs biblical dictionary, the roots of the Semitic word for watermelon, “avatiach” in Hebrew/”batich” in Arabic, may come from the ancient Egyptian language.

Illustrative photo of a watermelon-motif kippa (JTA)

In Canaan, the Israelites wouldn’t have waited very long to taste the sweet flesh again: There is archaeological evidence of watermelon remains in Tel Arad and even earlier in Bronze Age Moab.

This cameo biblical appearance corresponds with archaeological evidence found in Egypt, including 3,300-year-old watermelon seeds buried with the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun and a new interpretation of a 4,300-year-old tomb painting in Egypt that Renner believes is the earliest depiction of watermelon served as a dessert.

“The image was originally published back in 1912, but nobody had interpreted it as a watermelon before,” Renner told the Live Science website. Elsewhere, “another image shows the watermelon cut up on a tray alongside other sweet fruits, such as grapes,” she said.

In this October 8, 2010, photo, people prepare local crops of sugar cane and watermelons for sale, at Abu Shouk refugee camp, where they live on the outskirts of El Fasher, North Darfur, Sudan. (AP Photo/John Heilprin, File)

At the same time, Renner’s genetic study seemed to indicate that the fruit came from further down the Nile, in Sudan. She chalks this potential migration up to a more active role in trading played by the Nubian peoples than originally thought.

“The ancient Nubians who lived in modern-day Sudan are often overlooked in favor of the Egyptians,” Renner told Live Science. “It could have been the ancient Nubians who domesticated it and traded it with the ancient Egyptians or it could have been the Egyptians, but what my research suggests is that it was somewhere in this region that the watermelon was first domesticated, and the ancient Egyptians were eating them.”

Today, the white, not terribly sweet Sudanese melon is mostly used as animal feed.

A spider monkey licks a frozen watermelon treat on a hot day at the Oklahoma City Zoo, August 7, 2020, in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

But where did the red color come from?

According to the study, “The genetic signature of bitterness loss is present in the Kordofan melon genome, but the red fruit flesh color only became fixed in the domesticated watermelon.”

Apparently, along with an increasing preference for sweetness, early farmers showed their love for the fruit by selectively breeding for red varieties.

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