52 million-year-old fruit found in Patagonia

The fossils could tell us about how tomatillos, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers evolved
tomatillo fossil fruit These incredible fossils most closely resemble the tomatillo. (Peter Wilf/Penn State University)

We love fossils at OWLconnected. Don't believe us? Check this out. And this. And this.

There's something that all of those (and most other) fossil stories have in common, though: they're all about prehistoric animals. Well, sure. What else would they be about, right? How about... food?

After all, the vegetables and fruit that we eat everyday have undergone their own changes over the millions of years since the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And now we have some real proof of it. Behold: 52 million-year-old fruit!

Is this an ancient relative of the tomatillo?

Researchers from Penn State University are the ones who have just discovered two fossils of a fruit in the Patagonia region of South America. The fruit looks to be a part of the Solanaceae family of plants. This group, also known as lantern fruits, includes many well-known and delicious species, including potatoes, tomatoes, and bell peppers. But the modern fruit that it most resembles is the tomatillo.

Tomatillos are a staple of Mexican food. They look like green tomatoes and are covered in a loose, papery husk, or skin. You don't eat the husk, but the rest of the fruit is delicious. You can find them in lots of dishes, such as salsa verde (verde means "green"), other sauces, and soups.

Older history than we thought

tomatillo dried fruit

Two dried tomatillos. Check out the similarities between these and the fossils at the top of the page. (Peter Wilf/Penn State University)

This fragile skin is part of what makes the fossils so fascinating. "These fossils are one of a kind, since the delicate papery covers of lantern fruits are rarely preserved as fossils," said Mónica Carvalho, one of the researchers. According to her, these fossils show that this family of plants dates back much further than was once thought.

We've known for a long time that potatoes and tomatoes originated in the Americas. Even though the tomato is an important part of many European cuisines, especially Italian and Spanish food, it was only brought there after explorers such as Christopher Columbus reached the "New World" in the late 1400s and 1500s.

But this discovery tells us that the history of lantern fruits and the America goes back tens of millions of years. Next time you eat a fresh, ripe tomato, or even crunch into that potato chip, think of the ancient journey that brought them to our plates. That's some delicious history in your mouth!

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