Ancient chili peppers spice up archaeology

WASHINGTON – 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 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 pepper in the same league (although probably not the same millenium) as hoarier spices such as coriander, capers and fenugreek.

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 altered through selective breeding.

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

In all seven New World sites where chili pepper residues were 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.

However, the new study – led by Linda Perry, of the Smithsonian Institution – does more than illuminate the early history of cooking. It also provides details about early plant cultivation in South America, where agriculture emerged independent of its “discovery” in the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia.

Chili pepper residues were found in both the Amazon basin and on the coast of Ecuador. Because the plants don’t grow in the high, arid areas where the Incas and other advanced cultures evolved, the domestication probably occurred in more primitive, tropical cultures, which then traded in domesticated plants across the huge mountain range.

“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.

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.

As for the beer, David John Goldstein, an anthropologist at Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago, said the New World’s oldest dedicated brewery is at a 2,600-year-old site in southern Peru. There, people from the Wari empire made a drink called chicha from the sugary seeds of a local tree and drank it for ceremonial purposes.

Goldstein, who has brewed his own, says it has “a sort of dirty-sock taste, deep, very sour, acrid.” But the alcohol works, and he is sure some version of it was made much earlier and in many other places.

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