One Hot Archaeological Find

Chili pepper residues were found on cooking implements in the Amazon basin and on the coast of Ecuador.
Chili pepper residues were found on cooking implements in the Amazon basin and on the coast of Ecuador. (By Linda Perry -- Smithsonian Institution)
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007

Inhabitants of the New World had chili peppers and the makings of taco chips 6,100 years ago, according to new research that examined the bowl-scrapings of people sprinkled throughout Central America and the Amazon basin.

Upcoming questions on the research agenda -- and this is not a joke -- include: Did they have salsa? When did they get beer?

The findings described today in a 15-author report in the journal Science make the chili pepper the oldest spice in use in the Americas, and one of the oldest in the world.

The researchers believe further study may show that the fiery pod was used 1,000 years earlier than their current oldest specimen, as it shows evidence of having been domesticated, a process that would have taken time. If so, that would put chili peppers in the same league (although probably not the same millennium) as hoarier spices such as coriander, capers and fenugreek.

The chili pepper, however, makes up for its junior status with rapid spread and wild popularity. Within decades of European contact, the New World plant was carried across Europe and into Africa and Asia, adopted widely, and further altered through selective breeding.

Today, the chili pepper is an essential cooking ingredient in places as different as Hungary (where paprika is a national symbol), Ethiopia (where signature spice, berbere, is a mixture of chili powder and half a dozen other substances), and China (where entire cuisines are built around its heat).

In all seven New World sites where chili pepper residue was found, the researchers also detected remnants of corn. That suggests the domestication of the two foods -- still intimately paired in Latin American cuisine -- may have gone hand in hand.

The study, led by Linda Perry of the Smithsonian Institution, does more than illuminate one aspect of early cooking. It provides details about early plant cultivation in South America, where agriculture emerged independent of its "discovery" in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia.

Chili residue was found in both the Amazon basin and on the coast of Ecuador. Because the plants don't grow in the high, arid regions where advanced Andean cultures evolved, the domestication probably occurred in more primitive, tropical cultures, which then traded domesticated plants across the mountains.

"The usual idea is that the tropical lowlands were mostly on the receiving end, that they were not areas of innovation. Now our findings are beginning to cast doubt on that," said J. Scott Raymond, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary and co-author of the paper. Artifacts he excavated in western Ecuador contained chili residue.

The research also advances techniques in "archaeobiology," a discipline that fuses archaeology and, in this case, botany. Specifically, it shows that the study of microscopic starch granules stuck in the crevices of cooking implements can reveal foods that weren't thought to have enough starch in them to be traceable.

Peppers are in the botanical family Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes, another popular New World plant. A high priority now, Perry said, is to see if there are overlooked and still preserved starches from tomatoes in ancient implements.

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