Saturday science subject: Ancient chilies


— 5:02 PM on February 17, 2007

The human diet may have evolved since the beginnings of agriculture thousands of years ago, but an article at the Scientific American suggests that little has changed in some areas. Archaeobiologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History have discovered traces of chili peppers on South American kitchen implements dating back to 4,100 BCE, which suggests chilies have been on the menu for some populations for at least 6,100 years.

This means ancient peoples were enjoying spicy food even before they got around to inventing pottery. (Perhaps they invented it to hold their precious peppers?) And, because botanists suspect that peppers originated in Bolivia and were domesticated at sites ranging from Mexico for Capsicum annuum (which includes the common bell pepper and the spicy jalapeƱo) to the highlands of the Southern Andes for Capsicum pubescens (the underappreciated and extremely spicy rocoto), they must have been in use even prior to 6,000 years ago in Ecuador and elsewhere. "If peppers were domesticated in these other areas," [Archaeobiologist Linda Perry] says, then they had to be domesticated earlier and travel into this area, migrating with people or through trade."
So far, traces of ancient chili peppers have been found in Ecuador, the Bahamas, Panama, and Peru. The researchers hope to look for more sites carrying the traces in order to pinpoint when chili peppers were first domesticated.
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