Next time you're shaking Tabasco sauce on your eggs or dried chili pepper flakes on your pizza, you might pause to thank the indigenous Latin American cultures of more than 6,100 years ago that made it possible.
Three University of Calgary researchers, together with international colleagues, have traced the earliest known evidence for the domestication and spread of chili peppers by analysing starch microfossils recovered from grinding stones, sediments and charred ceramic cookware. In a forthcoming article in the journal Science, they report that common varieties of chili peppers (Capsicum species) were widely used in a region extending from the Bahamas to southern Peru.
"Until quite recently it's been assumed that the ancestors of the great highland civilizations, like the Inca and the Aztecs, were responsible for most of the cultural and agricultural advances of the region," says Dr. Scott Raymond, U of C archaeologist and one of the authors of the paper. "We now have evidence that the indigenous people from tropical, lowland areas deserve credit for the domestication of the chili pepper."
Dry, arid areas favour archaeological preservation, whereas tropical regions typically don't -- especially when it comes to foodstuffs. "A relatively recent discovery is that the cooking process doesn't completely destroy the evidence of starchy foods, and traces can still be recovered from the cooking vessels," says Sonia Zarrillo, another co-author of the paper and a U of C PhD student.
The authors report on seven sites throughout the Americas where they found starch grains from chili peppers, the oldest being from sites in Ecuador that date back 6,100 years. These Ecuadorian sites represent the earliest known village sites in the Americas, and were excavated by a team from the University of Calgary, led by Dr. Raymond.