Love gobbling up pumpkin-pies, butternut squash soup? You have the prehistoric mammoths and mastodons to thank for, says science. According to studies, some 12,000 years ago, pumpkins and related gourds weren’t as tasty as it is now. And it was said that humans avoided them accordingly, but fossilised dung samples have confirmed that the bitter taste of the gourds didn’t taste awful to the woolly mammoths and mastodons.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Smithsonian researcher and colleagues found that wild gourds carried a bitter-tasting toxin in their flesh that acted as a deterrent to some animals. While small rodents would avoid eating the gourds, the huge mammals would not. This was because their taste buds were designed differently, meaning their taste buds wouldn't pick up the bitter flavour and the toxin had no effect on them.
Mammoths would eat the gourds and pass the indigestible seeds out in their faeces. The seeds would then be plopped into whatever habitat range the mammoth was roaming in, complete with fertilizer.
Scientists have now come to a suspicion that pumpkins evolved just for this—to attract the large extinct animals. By evolving properties that were delicious to mammoths, the nascent squash species ensured that its fruit would be eaten by the giant mammals and that its seeds would be spread through mastodon migration and poop. Humans and woodland creatures didn’t quite have the range or capacity to transport large amounts of squash seeds in their guts, the authors say, so pumpkins evolved to offend their palates.
But with the decline of the mammoths and mastodons, pumpkins were in trouble as there were lesser mastodons or mammoths to eat them and help them spread. In such a situation, their ecosystem would become e crowded with squash and other uneaten plant species which is when researchers say pumpkins sort of, met humans halfway.
Humans began eating the less bitter varieties of the pumpkin, eventually selecting out the more bitter genes, then they selectively bred the tastiest ones leaving the bitter squash to die out. Gradually, the squash family transformed into those edibles, oddly-shaped gourds, pumpkins and pumpkin-pies.