If Pleistocene megafauna -- mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths and others -- had not become extinct, humans might not be eating pumpkin pie and squash for the holidays, according to an international team of anthropologists.
"It's been suggested before and I think it's a very reasonable hypothesis, that wild species of pumpkin and squash weren't used for food early in the domestication process," said Logan Kistler, NERC Independent Research Fellow, University of Warwick, U.K. and recent Penn State postdoctoral fellow. "Rather, they might have been useful for a variety of other purposes like the bottle gourd, as containers, tools, fishnet floats, etc. At some point, as a symbiotic relationship developed, palatability evolved, but the details of that process aren't known at the present."
Researchers believe that initially humans did not eat wild pumpkin and squash -- members of the cucurbita family -- because the wild fruit is not only bitter but also toxic to humans and smaller animals. However, clear evidence exists that very large animals -- megafauna -- that lived 12,000 years ago did eat these fruit.
"Lee Newsom (associate professor of anthropology, Penn State and study co-author) has recovered many wild gourd/squash seeds from ancient Mastodon dung, suggesting that large herbivores may have been an important feature in the natural history of these wild plants," said Kistler.
The researchers looked at varieties of modern domestic cucurbits, modern wild cucurbits and archaeological specimens. They believe that changes in distribution of the wild plants are directly related to the disappearance of the large animals.