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19 February 2007
American chili peppers from 6,000 years ago

Researchers report that across the Americas, chili peppers (Capsicum species) were cultivated and traded as early as 6,000 years ago - predating the invention of pottery in some areas of the Americas. The researchers analyzed starch grains to trace the history of chili peppers in the Americas.
     When Europeans arrived in the Americas, chili peppers were among the most widespread of the plants domesticated in the New World. However, the chronology and precise geography of their origins and early dispersals had been very poorly understood. Tropical environments, where many chili varieties were first domesticated and then incorporated into prehistoric farming systems, degrade most organic archaeological remains.
     Linda Perry of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington solved the problem of decaying vegetable matter leaving scant evidence when she found peppers could be identified from fossilised grains of starch. Starch grains from chilli peppers were then found alongside remnants of corn, yucca, squash, beans and palm fruit, suggesting ancient recipes designed to make a taste more palatable. The starch microfossils were found at seven sites dating from 6,000 years ago to European contact and ranging from the Bahamas to southern Peru.
     Cultivated chili starch grains are discernible from those of wild chilies. The remains of these domesticated chili peppers were often found with corn, forming part of a major, ancient food complex that predates pottery in some regions. The oldest Capsicum starch grains were found in southwestern Ecuador at two sites dating to 6,100 years ago. The chili remains were associated with previously identified corn, achira, arrowroot, leren, yuca, squash, beans and palm fruit, adding to the picture of an early, complex agricultural system in that region.
     In Panama, chilies occurred with corn and domesticated yams that dated 5,600 years before present. Chilies were found at a site occupied 6,000 years ago in the Peruvian Andes, with microscopic remains of corn, arrowroot and possibly potato. In this case, the chilies were identified as the species C. pubescens. The rocoto pepper, a cultivar of this species, is still a staple in the Peruvian diet. Newer sites in the Bahamas (1,000 ybp) and in Venezuela (500-1,000 ybp) also yielded remains of both corn and chilies.
     The research also advances techniques in "archaeobiology," a discipline that fuses archaeology and, in this case, botany. "We demonstrate that prehistoric people from the Bahamas to Peru were using chilies in a variety of foods a long time ago. The peppers would have enhanced the flavor of early cultivars such as maize and manioc and may have contributed to their rapid spread after they were domesticated," said co-author Dolores Piperno, Smithsonian scientist at the National Museum of Natural History and at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
     It's impossible to identify with certainty the first spice ever sprinkled on a roasting haunch or thrown in a stew-pot. But Wendy Applequist, an ethnobotanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said capers have been found at 10,000-year-old sites in Iran and Iraq; coriander at a 8,500-year-old site in Israel; and fenugreek in Syria's Tell Aswad, which is 9,000 years old. Whether these were domesticated or wild is not known.

Sources: Nature.com (15 February 2007), ScienceDaily, The Independent (16 February 2007), Post-Gazette.com (18 February 2007)

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