“We are very confident to say that this is the closest relative,” said Dr. Khomicki.
The Kordofan melon and the modern watermelon most likely originated from a long-gone wild melon, as the results suggest. Farmers would have recognized that this melon is sweeter than others and bred it into new, tasty varieties.
However, researchers still do not know who took this ancestor of the wild melon and turned it into what is on the tomb wall in Saqqara, or who put it on the path to what we eat today. Dr. Chomicki and colleagues plan to sequence the genomes of melon seeds found in African archaeological sites to determine where and when humans converted early watermelons into a more edible form.
The wild relatives of domesticated plants can be sources of fresh, interesting genes for breeders. A new color, a robust resistance to drought or a new way of combating epidemics are the treasures that wild plants can bring to the gene pool of domesticated varieties.
Even varieties closer to the source, like the kordofan melon, can help. The new study found that there are different forms of genes associated with disease resistance than the standard watermelon.
It’s not clear if there are still wild versions of the kordofan melon or its relatives in Sudan, said Dr. Khomicki. In the 1800s, the German botanist wrote, patches of melons grew wild. But this region near Darfur is difficult to access for researchers due to violence.
Many wild relatives of crops are threatened with extinction around the world due to human disturbance and climate change. If they leave, take the opportunity to improve native strains with them.
Dr. Chomicki has never tried the Kordofan melon – team members had to rely on samples collected by others for its analysis. The stories of its sweet taste, the tell-tale sign that there was a story to be told about the modern watermelon, are still second-hand.
“But I still have some seeds,” he said, “so I’ll plant and see them.”