The bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) has had a complex domestication history written for it over the past twenty years. However, recent DNA research suggests that it was domesticated twice: in Asia, at least 10,000 years ago, and again in Africa, about 4,000 years ago. Its dispersal throughout Polynesia is also a key part of evidence supporting Polynesian discovery of the New World, circa 1000 AD.
The bottle gourd is a diploid, monoecious plant of the Cucurbitacea. The plant has thick vines with large white flowers that open only at night. The fruit comes in a large variety of shapes, selected for by their human users. The bottle gourd is primarily grown for its fruit, which when dried forms a woody rind that is suitable for containing water and food, for fishing floats, for musical instruments and for clothing, among other things. In fact, the fruit floats, and bottle gourds with still-viable seeds have been discovered after floating in sea water for more than seven months.
The bottle gourd is native to Africa: wild populations of the plant have recently been discovered in Zimbabwe. Two subspecies, likely representing two separate domestication events, have been identified: Lagenaria siceraria spp. siceraria (in Africa, domesticated some 4,000 years ago) and L. s. spp. asiatica (Asia, domesticated at least 10,000 years ago, probably more like 12,000 years ago).
Domesticated bottle gourds have been identified in the Americas at sites such as Guila Naquitz in Mexico by ~10,000 years ago. DNA sequences of rinds discovered in precontact America are of the Asian sub-variety. Post-contact rinds are of the African sub-variety, and are believed to have been introduced into the Americas by the Spanish or other colonizers.
Asian bottle gourds (spp. asiatica) have been discovered in China and Japan by approximately 8,000-9,000 years ago, and it is likely that the earliest domestication of the bottle gourd occurred someplace in Asia, some three to four thousand years before that.
Bottle Gourd Dispersals
The earliest dispersal of the bottle gourd into the Americas was long believed by scholars to have occurred by the floating of domesticated fruits across the Atlantic. More recently, researchers David Erickson and colleagues (among others) have argued that bottle gourds, like dogs, were brought into the Americas with the arrival of Paleoindian hunter-gatherers, at least 10,000 years ago. If true, than the Asian form of the bottle gourd was domesticated at least a couple of thousand years before that. Evidence of that hasn't been discovered yet, although bottle gourds from several Jomon period sites on Japan have early dates.
It is likely that later dispersals throughout eastern Polynesia, Hawai'i, New Zealand and the western South American coastal region were driven by Polynesian seafaring. New Zealand bottle gourds exhibit features of both subspecies; but since the African subspecies is now believed to have arrived in the Americas after 1500 or so, the establishment of the relationship between the New Zealand microfossils (pollen and phytoliths) and the Americas is newly unclear.
Important Bottle Gourd Sites
AMS radiocarbon dates on bottle gourd rinds are reported after the site name, unless otherwise noted. Note: dates in the literature are recorded as they appear, but are listed in rough chronological order from oldest to youngest.
- Spirit Cave (Thailand), 10000-6000 BC (seeds)
- Azazu (Japan), 9000-8500 BC (seeds)
- Guila Naquitz (Mexico) 10,000-9000 BP (7973-6808 cal BC)
- Torihama (Japan), 8000-6000 cal BP (a rind may be dated ~15,000 bp)
- Awatsu-kotei (Japan), associated date 9600 BP
- Quebrada Jaguay (Peru), 8400 BP
- Windover Bog (Florida, US) 8100 BP
- Coxcatlan Cave (Mexico) 7200 BP (5248-5200 cal BC)
- Paloma (Peru) 6500 BP
- Torihama (Japan), associated date 6000 BP
- Shimo-yakebe (Japan), 5300 cal BP
- Sannai Maruyama (Japan), associated date 2500 BC
- Te Niu (Easter Island), pollen, AD 1450
Thanks to Hiroo Nasu of the Japanese Association of Historical Botany for the latest information about Jomon sites in Japan
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