The calabash or bottle gourd is one of the first species widely known to early humans across the world.
For a long time, researchers believed that gourds in the New World (North and South America) had Asian origins, and were brought by early explorers over land, through the Arctic regions.
Now, a new analysis combined with a study of ocean currents suggests that seeds may have actually floated here all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa!
The Humble Bottle Gourd
Let's look at this closely, shall we? First, the plant itself. The bottle gourd we know, has thick vines and large white flowers that open only at night. It has been grown for centuries for its fruit, but curiously, mainly for uses other than food!
The strong and buoyant fruits come in a large variety of sizes and shapes, from 5cm midgets to ones almost 2 meters in length! Once hollowed and dried, they become simple containers for water and food. They have also been used for rafts, pipes, fishing floats, and of course, a large variety of musical instruments across different cultures.
The plant once grew wild in Africa, from where it was initially 'domesticated' and then taken by explorers into Asia and later Europe. By domestication, we mean early humans spotted and specifically grew those varieties of the wild gourd which they found most useful. And it was so long ago, that the Asian and African varieties can now be genetically told apart from each other.
Researchers suggested that the gourd traveled with humans when they crossed from Asia to America via a land bridge. However, there is no evidence to show that the gourd was ever used in those Arctic regions. Also, the harsh climate and the short-growing season could not have permitted this African plant to survive there either.
A Voyage Through The Seas
Scientists compared DNA of a huge number of current samples of gourds from Asia, Africa, the Americas and also brought in archeological samples from across the Americas for their study.
They established a direct link between the gourds of the Western Hemisphere and those from the Africa. Computer models based on oceanic currents have shown that the sturdy gourds could have indeed made their way across the ocean from Africa to eastern shores of the Americas, and within time limits that permit their seeds to sprout afresh!
So the calabash might have grown wild again in the Americas and later, been domesticated all over again - an important development in the New World's history of farming. And now, researchers propose to study Asian archeological fragments to capture even more details of the evolution of this fascinating plant.
Check out this gourd artist!