Science & Technology

This Is What Fruits and Vegetables Looked Like Before Humans Intervened

In an era where nearly everything we eat has an extensive ingredient list, it's appealing to pick up a simple fruit or vegetable. However, the fruits and vegetables we know and love are a lot more complicated than you'd think. They didn't always look like they do. In fact, it took decades of human intervention to transform them into the delicious, nutrient-rich morsels they are today.

Farmers, food engineers, and food manufacturers have long been using selective breeding, hybridization, and most recently, genetic engineering to transform the fruits and vegetables we eat into better versions of themselves. To understand how these processes shaped your food, you first need to understand just how they work.

  • Selective breeding happens when humans take seeds from the most desirable varieties of fruits and vegetables and cultivate them. Repeating this process over and over can result in a new variety with the trait you're looking for, like juicier watermelon or plumper corn.
  • Hybridization happens when humans breed two slightly different plants together to create a hybrid fruit or vegetable. If you've ever eaten a Tangelo, starfruit, or Meyer lemon, you've eaten a hybrid.
  • Genetic engineering is the process of splicing a plant's DNA in order to directly target and replace specific genes. Many varieties of modern apples, potatoes, and corn were produced through genetic modification.

But before these processes came on the scene, here's what some of the most common fruits and vegetables used to look like.

Corn

Corn has been a staple grain of the human diet since as far back as 10,000 B.C. when it started as a grass called teosinte. This early corn was a hard, small, dry grain with a taste similar to raw potato. In fact, corn of today looks so unlike its grass ancestor that we didn't realize corn and teosinte were related until scientists studied their genetics in the 1930s. What food researchers now know is that modern maize was domesticated many millennia ago and had been transformed into longer cobs with plumper kernels by 4000 B.C., thanks to Mesoamerican farmers saving seeds from more favorable crops and planting them for the next harvest.

But it didn't stop there. Over the next millennia, corn would continue to be bred to be what it is today. Since the 1980s, food scientists have been using genetic engineering to give these crops pest and drought resistance, increase their yield, and otherwise create a more sustainable farming ecosystem.

"Watermelons, peaches, pears and other fruit in a landscape" (1645–72), oil on canvas

Watermelon

Do you recognize the watermelon pictured here? If you don't, that's probably because it's from a 17th-century painting by Giovanni Stanchi. While you might be able to determine that it's some kind of watermelon, it hardly looks like the seedless, juicy, ruby-red picnic fruit we know today.

Naturally, fruits can only survive in the wild by spreading their seeds, which is why this early watermelon has so many of them. Over the centuries, the tendency of farmers to plant only the seeds from watermelons with the most favorable qualities — that is, the juiciest fruits with the smallest seeds — has turned it into a fruit that would never survive in nature: one with few seeds, protected by a thin rind, and packed with tons of sugar and water for a juicy crunch.

Bananas

Bananas are a particularly interesting case of hybridization and selective breeding because the most popular variety of today can't grow a replacement — it's sterile. But around 10,000 years ago, bananas were packed with so many hard seeds that they were basically inedible. Every so often, hunter-gatherers in Southeast Asia would happen upon a mutant: a banana with no seeds and soft fruit. Farmers back then would grow more of these freak fruits by simply replanting cuttings of their living trees.

Today, there are more than 1,000 banana varieties worldwide, but the yellow bananas you're most likely familiar with are one variety of the plant: the Cavendish, which makes up 99 percent of all global banana exports. This variety became popular in the 1950s due to its resistance to Panama disease, which decimated other varieties. This allowed for higher yielded crops and easier shipping for producers.

But the Cavendish isn't safe, either. Genetically it's been roughly the same for the last hundred years, meaning that it hasn't evolved in ways that plants naturally do, whether to protect against new insect predators or become resistant to harmful bacteria and fungus. This lack of genetic diversity in the crop leaves it vulnerable to a new fungus that could wipe it out completely, and scientists are racing to find a cure.

Solanum incanum at an altitude of 1,980m in the Al Hajar Mountains of Oman

Eggplant

The history of the eggplant (aka aubergine, brinjal, melongene, or guinea squash) is still up for debate, but most agree it can be traced back to something prickly and poisonous in the nightshade family. Wild eggplants have long come in a variety of different shapes and colors, which explains their seemingly incongruous name: the first variety recorded in English was white and oval like a goose egg.

Originally, the eggplant's protective spines, located where the fruit connects to the stem, made them hard to harvest and ultimately hard to consume. So over time, the eggplant was selectively bred to be more desirable for human consumption: farmers and cultivators favored the seeds from fruits with fewer spines, thinner skin, and a plumper interior. Through decades of this practice, farmers have been able to transform this spiny fruit into the large oblong purple pick of produce (and the 15 or so other varieties) that you can find in grocery stores today.

Wild carrot (daucus carota) illustration from Medical Botany (1836) by John Stephenson and James Morss Churchill

Carrots

Carrots originated in Persia in the 10th century, but not in the forms you might recognize. These early vegetables were purple or white with many forking roots. In essence, they looked like what they are: roots.

Like the first seedless banana, it's possible that we have the modern carrot's orange hue thanks to a genetic mutation that turned the carrot yellow. Farmers domesticated this root to be more uniform in shape, more appealing in color, and more predictable to grow. This was done by selecting and replanting roots of juicier varieties. As the plants got juicier, people found that orange carrots had the best taste, which is historically the best evidence we have for why orange carrots are dominant today. Carrots are now an annual winter crop with a surprisingly delicious flavor compared to carrots of the past.

Peaches

The ancestors of modern peaches originated in China 6,000 years ago. They began as small, cherry-sized fruits that were hard, dry, and said to have tasted like a lentil — hardly something you'd want to top with ice cream. After that, it was the familiar story: Farmers chose the juiciest, tastiest fruits for planting their next trees, over time selectively breeding the fruit to be chock full of water and loaded with delectable fruit sugar. Today, there are about 200 different varieties of peaches, and rather than being relegated to one country, they're grown in 13 different nations across the world.

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Learn more about food throughout history in "An Edible History of Humanity" by Tom Standage. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Trevor English September 1, 2016

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