Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary


When the Spaniards entered our region, they found people wearing garments of woven cotton. Cotton was long known in the Old World, but what was it doing here, thousands of miles across ocean waters?

Part of the mystery was soon cleared up. Just as we recognize the fruits of many species of oaks as acorns, so it turns out that four domesticated species of Gossypium produce what we call cotton. Two of these species were domesticated in the Old World, probably one in Ethiopia and one in India.

Two also were domesticated in the New World, but here the mystery deepens once more. Both species are allotetraploids, a fancy word meaning they ended up after hybridization with two complete sets of genetic material originating from two different species—and one of those sets in each is nearly identical to those of the Old World. Much has been made of this by some students, invoking human contact across the Atlantic thousands of years ago. A more conservative approach holds that the hybridization occurred millions—not thousands—of years ago.
pen and ink


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

cotton fibers

Cotton fibers.



Fryxell, P. A. 1979. The Natural History of the Cotton Tribe (Malvaceae, Tribe Gossypieae). Texas A&M University Press. College Station and London. 245 pp.