First peck of peppers picked 6,100 years ago: study

A boy heaps red chili peppers into a pile in this file photo dated February 25, 2004. Archeologists have traced what they believe is evidence of the first home-grown chili peppers, used in South America 6,100 years ago. REUTERS/Amit Dave

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Here’s a hot, new discovery: archeologists have traced what they believe is evidence of the first home-grown chili peppers, used in South America 6,100 years ago.

And it was people in tropical, lowland areas of what is now western Ecuador who first spiced up their cuisine, not those from higher, drier Mexico and Peru as was previously assumed, said Scott Raymond, a University of Calgary archeologist.

His team, led by Linda Perry, researcher with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, made the finding by analyzing starch microfossils from grinding stones and charred ceramic cookware recovered from seven sites in the Americas. Their report is published in the journal Science.

“What’s very satisfying about this evidence is that it comes from residues on pottery, so the association of these crops with food, with the pots and with the dates is all very tight,” he said. “We can, without any kind of reasonable doubt, argue that these plants were there at that time.”

The pepper species cultivated in the villages -- the earliest known settlements in the Western Hemisphere -- grew naturally only to the east of the Andes. That means that the people in the villages of the tropical region transported them across the mountains to grow them, Raymond said.

Results from the Canadian-U.S.-Venezuelan project yielded evidence that peppers were farmed in the region more than 1,000 years before the plants were cultivated in Peru or Mexico, Raymond said.

In fact, the work shows that chili peppers are among the oldest domesticated foods in the hemisphere, said Deborah Pearsall, a University of Missouri-Columbia anthropologist.

The team took to analyzing starch grains because chili peppers are not well preserved after being cooked -- most of them get eaten and there are no husks or shells left over, Pearsall said.

It is not known yet if chili peppers were used only as a condiment for the culture’s diet of maize, beans and yams, or if they were also grown for medicinal purposes, Raymond said.