Ancient Americans liked it hot and spicy

February 16, 2007

Chili

Inhabitants of the New World had chile 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 chile pepper the oldest spice in use in the Americas and one of the oldest in the world.

The researchers believe further study may show 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 chile pepper in the same league (although probably not the same millennium) as hoarier spices such as coriander, capers and fenugreek.

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

In all seven New World sites where chile 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.

Chile 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. Artifacts he excavated in western Ecuador contained chile residues.

The research also advances techniques in “archaeobiology,” a discipline that fuses archaeology and, in this case, botany. Specifically, it shows the study of microscopic starch granules stuck in the crevices of cooking implements can reveal the presence of 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 wildly popular New World plant. Perry is going after them next.

“We are very excited that we now have a microfossil — these starch grains — that will make plants that were previously invisible visible to us,” she said.

It’s impossible to identify with certainty the first spice ever sprinkled on a roasting haunch of meat 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. Source

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