Some prehistoric people in the Americas were cooking up spicy meals even before they could make the pottery to serve them in. A study released in February says early farmers and cooks were spiking their food with chilies about 6,000 years ago: “Probably the earliest spice plant found thus far in the Americas,” says Linda Perry, an archaeobiologist working with the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “It would have made a diet of roots, tubers, and corn taste a little better.”
Perry suggests in her report that the domestication of condiments—not just staples like corn and the tuber manioc—indicates that early inhabitants had sophisticated palates and agricultural systems. Chilies are a rich source of vitamin C, but it is unknown whether that played a role in their cultivation.
Perry and her colleagues looked for traces of chilies in ancient middens, or trash heaps, where such microscopic residue is preserved among other refuse. Their key discovery was identifying features in fossilized starch grains that distinguish wild and domesticated peppers. By studying domesticated grains taken from sites in Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and the Bahamas, the team determined that people were growing chilies as long as 6,250 years ago. Another five and a half millennia would elapse, however, before Columbus brought the hot stuff back to Europe to set tongues on fire from Spain to Thailand.
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