What is the history of squashes?

Cucurbits are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere and are "among the most ancient of cultivated plants in the Americas". They have been used and cultivated by Americans for several thousand years. C. pepo may have first been planted by man as long ago as 6000 to 43000 BC. Archeological records from ocampo, Mexico and Huaca Prieta, Peru indicate that c. pepo in Mexico and c. ficiola (a gourd) in peru might have been cultivated even before maize, a staple food of many ancient and present-day American civilizations. The cultivated species have not been found in the wild state, but are invariably associated with man. This fact and the abundant materials of these species in the ruins of ancient civilizations indicate their importance in the development of primitive agriculture in the Americas.

Origin of C. pepo: According to Whitaker and Davis, C. pepo originated in northern Mexico and the United States. There are earlier archeological records of it than of other species and thus it probably originated, or at least was gathered and used by man, before other cucurbits. The earliest archeological records are from three caves in the Sierra Madres, near Ocampo, in Tamaulipas, Mexico. These caves are on the northern edge of an area of great prehistoric cultural development in Central America. Archeologists found c. pepo remains there in all the periods of excavated material, including the earliest (7000 to 5500 BC). (C. moschata was found in later periods only and C. maxima was not found.) Most of the materials consisted of the dry, hardened 'rinds' or 'shells' of the fruits, but seeds and peduncles were frequently present in quantity.

Whitaker, Cutler and MacNeish have reconstructed the cultures represented in the excavations at Ocampo and their use of curcurbits as follows. During the first period (7000 to 5500 BC) people were wild-plant collectors and hunters. C. pepo was foraged and used as food. During the 2nd period (6000 to 4300 BC) people were still "basically wild-plant collectors although remains of pods of jack beans, common beans and quite a bit of squash suggest some planting. During the 3rd period (4300 to 3800) "though most of the diet consisted of wild food plants, a fair number of bean pods, beans and fragments of squash, as well as one or two fragments of very primitive corn were found." Agriculture, and along with it village life, pottery-making and basket-weaving, became the way of life during the 4th period (3800 to 3400BC0 and 5th period (3400 to 2400 BC). During the 5th period, crops included squash, gourds, cotton, corn, jack beans, common beans, and lima beans.

Whitaker and Davis list other sites at which C. pepo has been discovered and the approximate dates of the C. pepo material as: Tularosa Cave, New Mexico, 800 BC to 1200AD; Medicine Cave, Arizona, 904 AD to 1025 AD; Ridge Ruin, Arizona, 1075 to 1173 AD; Walnut Canyon, Arizona, 911 to 1256 AD; Mesa Verde Step House, Colorado, 610 AD; and Pueblo Benito, New MEXICO, 807 TO 1130 AD. Whitaker and Davis conclude from this data that "C. pepo was widely distributed over northern Mexico and the southwest U.S. in pre-Columbian times. There is historical evidence which strongly suggests that it was also distributed along the eastern seaboard and through the mid-west of the U.S. in pre-Columbian times." Also, C. pepo has been obtained from Indian tribes or found in archeological sites from Canada to Guatemala.

In 1835, C. texana a "small-fruited, hard-shelled, bitter-fleshed gourd that grows wild among and over thickets and small trees along rives" was collected in central and southern Texas. After much controversy, it has been established "that C. texana is indigenous to the region where it has been collected and evidence suggests that it is the prototype of C. pepo.

Origin of C. moschata: Sometime after C. pepo had evolved, C. moschata originated in Central America or northern South America. It spread and, in pre-Columbian times, it grew in South America (unlike C. pepo). Central America and in North America, though it did not grow in as wide an area in North America as did C. pepo. The oldest archeological record of C. moschata is from Huaca Prieta, on the arid coast of Peru, and dates back to 4000 to 3000 BC. The oldest C. moschata remains in North America, which are roughly of the same age as those from Peru, are from the Ocampo caves. However, the most definite and numerous remains of C. moschata in the Ocampo caves are younger (1440-440 BC). All C. moschata remains from Ocampo caves are newer than the oldest C. pepo remains at the same site.

North of Ocampo, Mexico, "C. moschata first appeared about 1000 years ago and spread over a small part of the area in which C. pepo was grown. The limited distribution of this species is probably correlated with a lack of tolerance to low temperatures." Other archeological remains of C. moschata listed by Whitaker and Davis, from which its distribution has been reconstructed, are: Ackmen, Colorado, 612-872 AD; Uaxactun, Dept. of Peten, Guatemala, 900 AD; Montezuma Castle, Arizona, 1100 AD; Ancon, Peru, 900-1200 AD; Painted Cave, Arizona, 400-1247 AD; Cincha, Peru, 1430-1530 AD.

Two types of cultivars of C. moschata have evolved, differentiated by seed color and geography. One group of cultivars, having light colored or white seeds, is confined to Mexico and Guatemala and the other having predominantly brown or dark colored seeds, is found in Panama and northern South America.

Origin of C. Maxima: C. maxima apparently originated in or near valleys of the Andes mountains of northern Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. Before the discovery of the New World, C. maxima remained localized and, unlike maize and tomatoes, was not carried to Central America or even as close as to northern South America. At the time of the Spanish conquest, it was found growing in and near the Andean valleys where it originated and has not been found outside of this area, except as evidently carried by man. It was "one of the principal plant species cultivated by the guarani Indians in northeast Argentina and Paraguay" when the Spanish arrived.

Archeological records of C. maxima are not numerous. One, from San Nicholas, Peru, is dated 1200 AD. Whitaker examined seeds and writes "they are well-preserved and not unlike those of the modern cultivar 'Banana'. There are no records of C. Maxima in Central America, Mexico or southwestern U.S.

Thus, at the time of European discovery and colonization of the Americans, C. pepo was widely grown in North and Central America, from Canada to Guatemala. C. moschata was grown in the warmer areas of North America, such as Arizona, in Central America and in northern South America. C. maxima was confined to the relatively small area in central South America of northern Argentina, northern Chile, Boliva, and southern Peru. These squashes were a staple food and, in fact, "many of the Northern American tribes, particularly in the West, still grow a diversity of hardy squashes and pumpkins not to be found in our markets.

Spread to Europe: Explorers took squashes they found in the New World back to people in Europe, to whom they were unknown. "A careful investigation of the historical record indicates that the cultivated species of Cucurbita were unknown in western Europe prior to 1492. In the 16th century, at least two species. C. pepo and C. maxima, were recognized by the herbalists and in C. pepo a number of varieties were known.

European settlers of the New World were introduced to C. pepo varieties, as they were to corn and other staples, by Indians. Prototypes of the modern varieties Bush Scallop and Perfect Gem were known and recorded by early American writers.

C. maxima varieties were introduced to the U.S. from South America, many in the 1800's, and from the West Indies. Com's Porter Valparaiso, brought to the U.S. from Chile after the War of 1821, was listed in a seed catalog of 1828 and was probably the first C. maxima variety offered to American farmers. The Hubbard, of unknown origin, was introduced about 1855, by Gregory, "a prominent and successful market gardener of Marblehead, Mass. And it was due to the public interest in this variety that Mr. Gregory embarked upon the career of a seedsman." In 1867, Marblehead squash, a C. maxima similar to Hubbard, was introduced, also by Gregory. It came directly from West Indies, where it was probably brought by the Spanish several centuries earlier. The turban squash was brought from Chile in 1856.

The first comprehensive publication dealing with varieties was "The Description des Plantes Potageres" by Vilmorin-Andrieux et Cie, in 1856. In 1863, Burr published "Field and Garden Vegetables of America" which was almost entirely devoted to varieties.

The period 1880-1900 saw a great development of modern horticultural varieties. Fordhook, Perfect Gem, Pineapple and Delicata (C. pepo winter types) became available to growers. Also introduced in that period were the C. pepo summer types, Earliest Prolific, Mammoth, White Bush Scallop, Long Island White Bush Scallop, and Giant Summer Straightneck. Table Queen, a well-known variety today, was introduced in 1913. Zucchini came from Italy in 1921. In 1934, Cocozelle, also from Italy, was introduced. In 1925, Buttercup was developed from Hubbard types of use in South Dakota as a replacement for the sweet potato which did not grow well there.

Excerpted from Sackett, Clarice. 1975October. Fruit & Vegetable Facts & Pointers: Squash. United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, 1019 19th Street, NW. Washington, D.C.

Updated: Wednesday, May 23, 2012.