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 three times: in Asia, at least 10,000 years ago; in Central America, about 10,000 years ago; and in Africa, about 4,000 years ago. In addition, the bottle gourd's dispersal throughout Polynesia is a key part of evidence supporting the possible 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 hollow vessel that is suitable for containing water and food, for fishing floats, for musical instruments and for clothing, among other things. In fact, the fruit itself floats, and bottle gourds with still-viable seeds have been discovered after floating in seawater 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 ago0.
The likelihood of a third domestication event, in Central America about 10,000 years ago, has been implied from genetic analysis of American bottle gourds (Kistler et al.), Domesticated bottle gourds have been recovered in the Americas at sites such as Guila Naquitz in Mexico by ~10,000 years ago.
Bottle Gourd Dispersals
The earliest dispersal of the bottle gourd into the Americas was long believed by scholars to have occurred from the floating of domesticated fruits across the Atlantic. In 2005, researchers David Erickson and colleagues (among others) argued that bottle gourds, like dogs, had been brought into the Americas with the arrival of Paleoindian hunter-gatherers, at least 10,000 years ago. If true, then the Asian form of the bottle gourd was domesticated at least a couple of thousand years before that. Evidence of that has not been discovered, although domestic bottle gourds from several Jomon period sites on Japan have early dates.
In 2014, researchers Kistler et al. disputed that theory, in part because it would have required the tropical and subtropical bottle gourd to have been planted at the crossing place into the Americas in the Bering Land Bridge region, an area far too cold to support that; and evidence for its presence in the likely entryway into the Americas has yet to be found. Instead, Kistler's team looked at DNA from samples in several locales in the Americas between 8,000 BC and 1925 AD (included Guila Naquitz and Quebrada Jaguay) and concluded that Africa is the clear source region of the bottle gourd in the Americas. Kistler et al. suggest that the African bottle gourds were domesticated in the American Neotropics, derived from seeds out of gourds which had drifted across the Atlantic.
Later dispersals throughout eastern Polynesia, Hawai'i, New Zealand and the western South American coastal region may have been driven by Polynesian seafaring. New Zealand bottle gourds exhibit features of both subspecies. The Kistler study identified the Polynesia bottle gourds as L. siceria ssp. asiatica, more closely related to Asian examples, but the puzzle was not addressed in that study.
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 roughly chronological order from oldest to youngest.
- Spirit Cave (Thailand), 10000-6000 BC (seeds)
- Azazu (Japan), 9000-8500 BC (seeds)
- Little Salt Spring (Florida, US), 8241-7832 cal BC
- Guila Naquitz (Mexico) 10,000-9000 BP 7043-6679 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), 6594-6431 cal BC
- 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.
This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Plant Domestication and the Dictionary of Archaeology.
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