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Smithsonian scientists report ancient chili pepper history

Smithsonian researchers and colleagues report that across the Americas, chili peppers (Capsicum species) were cultivated and traded as early as 6,000 years agopredating 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.

Their findings contribute significantly to the current understanding of ancient agricultural practices in the Americas. The report is published in the Feb. 16 issue of the journal Science.

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, washing away and decomposing all but the most durable evidence of ancient human activities. Lead author Linda Perry, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and colleagues overcame this obstacle by identifying chili pepper starch grains. 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.

The Smithsonian holds the most extensive reference collection of microscopic plant remains available to archaeologistsstarch, pollen grains and microfossils called phytoliths. The team of researchers adding to this collection discovered that starch grains from chili peppers, members of the genus Capsicum, are shaped like red blood cells, with a strong, central line or split on the side.

"Sorting through microscopic particles and finding a type that distinguishes such an important plant group is like opening a window to the past," Perry said. "While we once based our understanding of chili peppers on rare sites with
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