Biology

Avocado: saved from its fate

Avocados are a delicious and nutritious fruit that has become popular in recent years outside of areas where they were traditionally grown. However, the case of avocado is particular among the rest of fruits, because if it had not been cultivated by humans it would have been extinct thousands of years ago. In this article we explain the curious history of avocado cultivation.

Avocado characteristics

There are many varieties of avocados ( Persea americana ), from those that are pear-shaped to others that are rounded. The wild variety of avocado is called criollo . They all share a number of characteristics, such as a hard and inedible outer shell and a large seed inside. The pulp is oily and has a light green or yellow color.

The fruit, in addition to being valued for its flavor and pleasant texture on the palate, has numerous nutritional properties. It contains a large amount of fiber, folic acid, and elements such as iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc. It also contains about 20 vitamins , including B2, B3, B5, B6, C, E and K.

Six and a half million tons of avocados are produced annually in the world, with Mexico being the main producer, with more than two million tons. Spain also produces avocados, because the climate is suitable for the growth of the plant. In several South American countries the plant is known as avocado.

Avocado history

The avocado is a plant native to Mexico, possibly from the Tehuacán Valley. Avocado bones have been found in caves inhabited by humans 10,000 years ago in the region . In other countries such as Peru, avocado cultivation is later, having found bones of this fruit in settlements of 3,000 or 4,000 years ago.

Avocado
Avocado

The avocado is a well-documented case of evolutionary anachronism . Because the outer shell of the fruit contains toxic substances, researchers have concluded that the inner part of the fruit was eaten by large land mammals that inhabited the area and later became extinct, such as the giant sloth .

These animals would have had the ability to swallow the avocado seed, to later disperse it. However, there is currently no species in the region that is capable of swallowing the huge avocado seed . Thus, since the animals that fed on these fruits have become extinct, the plant should also have become extinct. 

It should be mentioned that the most accepted hypothesis for the extinction of the giant sloths would be the arrival of humans in North America , which occurred through the Bering Strait bridge formed during the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago. Humans would have subsequently advanced across the continent to reach South America. 

The hypothesis that the giant sloths were extinct by humans is reinforced by the fact that the last specimens survived on islands that took thousands of years to be colonized, their disappearance coinciding with the arrival of the first humans.

Returning to the cultivation of avocados, it was the Aztecs of Mesoamerica who began to cultivate this fruit. The word avocado comes from the Nahuatl word “ahuacatl”, which means “testicle” . This is due to the shape of avocados, which resembles that of this part of the human anatomy. That is why avocados were considered a symbol of fertility by the cultures of the area.

Toxicity

The avocado plant produces a toxin called persin , which is present in the shell of the fruit and seeps into the pulp, although in such small amounts that it is harmless for most people, except those with allergies to this substance. However, the leaves and bark of the plant also contain this substance, so it can be toxic to different animals. Birds are particularly sensitive to persin, so they should not be fed avocado pulp.

To delve into this topic, the idea was brought to us by an anecdote told in the book « This was not in my botany book » by Rosa Porcel.

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