We are officially in pumpkin season. Pumpkins for jack o’lanterns. Pumpkins for pies. Pumpkins for, yes, the dreaded pumpkin spice latte.
If you believe the pumpkin to be the pinnacle of perfection in the Cucurbitaceae family — all hail the Great Pumpkin of “Peanuts” fame — then take some time this pumpkin season to honor those to whom we owe this most useful and delicious fruit of the vine.
We refer, of course, to the woolly mammoth. Also the non-woolly Columbian mammoth and the related mastodon. But woolly mammoth is more fun to write. So is mega-fauna, because that’s why they all were — big, monstrous elephant-like creatures that roamed across North America until the end of the Pleistocene about, oh, 11,000 years ago. (A few remnant herds of woolly mammoths hung on in the Arctic until about 4,000 years ago and there are scientists today who are convinced they can use DNA from those fossils to bring them back. Instead of “Jurassic Park” think “Pleistocene Park.” But we digress).
So how are these mega-fauna responsible for your pumpkin pie? You might not want to read this while you’re eating – just saying.
What we know as the pumpkin evolved in what today is northern Mexico and the American Southwest. Squash in those days was pretty bitter by our standards, so bitter that even small, hungry animals in the desert avoided the nasty things. That bitterness was part of the plant’s natural defenses against being nibbled on and having their seeds turned into some rodent’s lunch. (We didn’t figure this out on our own; we are indebted to six actual scientists who published their findings a few years ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) Mega-fauna like mammoths and mastadons didn’t care about the taste, though. They were big ol’ beasts who needed to eat – a lot. Their taste buds weren’t quite as refined as that of your prissy little desert mouse. Mammoths and mastadons gobbled down pumpkins and other squashes and gourds and barely noticed the taste. They also didn’t — um, how shall we say this delicately? – digest the seeds. You can let your imagination do the rest, just as the mammoth’s digestive system did. Oh, what the heck, let’s just say it: The mammoths and mastadons pooped out the seeds whole. This had the effect of spreading pumpkin seeds over a larger range. (For all you who think pumpkin spice latte is disgusting, you now have another argument. No need to thank us. We are here to serve.)
So, think of these mega-fauna as the Johnny Pumpkinseeds of their era. So what happened when their era came to a close – a demise likely brought on by a changing climate and the arrival of pesky humans with sharp spears and a taste for mammoth burgers? First, pumpkins stopped spreading — bad for pumpkins. But then humans decided to eat them, the study says. People probably didn’t like the bitter taste, either, the study says, but then they did what humans uniquely do. They farmed. They saved, and re-planted, the seeds from the sweeter-tasting varieties and discarded the others. Over time, sweeter pumpkins evolved — and, presto, pumpkin everything. The mammoths and mastadons are gone but their legacy is still with us, in every pumpkin patch.
It’s also there in the Louisiana Purchase. You didn’t see that coming, now did you?
OK, we’re overstating things a bit. Thomas Jefferson had good geopolitical reasons to buy a big chunk of the continent. But Jefferson was fascinated with the idea that mammoths were still roaming North America, somewhere out there on the plains.
Go ahead and sip on your pumpkin spice latte, now. We’re not going to talk about mammoth poop anymore. We’re going to talk about politics — which, yes, we understand many find equally disgusting. First, mammoths played an unexpected role in our understanding of science. In 1705, a farmer in New York turned up a five-pound tooth. According to Smithsonian magazine, he “promptly traded it to a local politician for a glass of rum.” You know, priorities. The strange tooth wound up in London, where it was celebrated as a previously unknown species — this was a century before anyone knew about dinosaurs. For the first time, Smithsonian says, scientists began talking seriously about extinction.
The mammoth — extinct or otherwise — also became an American talking point. Europeans were convinced that North American species were inferior their own. Smithsonian says Jefferson was “clearly offended.” He “constructed elaborate tables comparing American species with their puny Old World counterparts — three-and-a-half pages of bears, bison, elk and flying squirrels going toe-to- toe.” When he went to Paris, he packed “an uncommonly large panther skin” to show off. Later, he had a dead moose sent to France. The mammoth was his best talking point of all and it fascinated him. “The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wildly (and incorrectly) asserted.
Jefferson also didn’t believe in extinction — it seemed contrary to God’s design — which meant there must still be mammoths somewhere. “In the present interior of our continent there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions, if in that climate they could subsist; and for the mammoth and megalonyxes who may subsist there,” he wrote in 1797. “Our entire ignorance of the immense country to the West and North-West, and of its contents, does not authorize us so say what it does not contain.” He was thrilled by the discovery of a “mastodon graveyard” in Kentucky and insisted on samples. “There is no expense of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely,” he wrote. The rival Federalists mocked Jefferson’s interest in mammoths — and his apparent disinterest in religion — by calling him a “mammoth infidel.” Even when the disputed election of 1800 was raging, Jefferson found time to write to friends about mammoths.
The Louisiana Purchase finally gave Jefferson the opportunity to find out. Among the various instructions he laid out for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark was one to be on the lookout “for the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Historian Robert Saindon writes in his history of the expedition: “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it.”
Alas, they found no mammoths and Jefferson grudgingly came to accept that they were extinct. But thanks to them, pumpkin pie is quite real.
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