By Dave DeWitt
Using the same technology that proved the use of chocolate at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, researchers have analyzed the contents of the residue of pots from ancient Mexico and discovered traces of chiles without chocolate. This indicates that either chile sauces were being made, or that they were used to spice up other beverages, about a thousand years earlier than the Cerén archaeological site in El Salvador.
Terry Powis, associate professor of anthropology and colleagues at Kennesaw State University in Georgia have chemically analyzed the residue in 13 pottery vessels, including spouted jars, pots and vases dating from 1700–2400 years ago that were found at an archaeological site in the state of Chiapas, which was at that time inhabited by the Mixe–Zoquean people.“The best and most direct evidence for chile pepper use in Mesoamerica prior to our study is from Ceren,” (see our article here) says Powis. “So our work pushes back this date from circa AD 540 to circa 400 BC. To be honest, our study is the only one of its kind to show direct evidence of chile pepper use. In all of the other examples listed in the paper there is only indirect evidence – of chiles and pots found together. We actually linked the two together for the first time, and that is an important development. Therefore, we actually have the earliest known consumption of the peppers.”
Powis added, “During the mass spec analysis we were completely surprised by the fact that no cacao was present in any of the pots tested. In fact chile was present.” The exact species of chile present was not identified, but Powis hopes to accomplish that in the future. The most logical species is Capsicum annuum, which was domesticated in Mexico.
Because of the absence of cacao and the fact that the artifacts were found in places associated with high status individuals and rituals, the team speculated that chile peppers were possibly used to produce a spicy beverage or alternatively a chile sauce that was stored in the spouted jars and subsequently poured as a dining condiment, possibly during ritual feasts.
Powis wondered, “Was the chile ground up to produce a paste or a salsa and subsequently used as a seasoning in foods that were offered to the Zoquean gods or chiefs? Or, were the peppers left whole in the pots? We assume that the presence of chile is in the form of a sauce or paste, and not whole given that no seeds or other macrofossils were identified in the interiors of the vessels.”
If the residue is not from a chile paste, was it a spicy beverage other than hot chocolate? “Why would there be evidence of chile peppers in a spouted jar?” Powis asked in his article. “It is commonly assumed that spouted jars were used for pouring a liquid into another container. Perhaps the peppers were not made into a sauce but a spicy beverage or alternatively a chile sauce that was stored in the spouted jars and subsequently poured as a dining condiment.”
And if the chiles were used in a beverage other than hot chocolate, what might it have been? Further analysis will be required, but two possibilities come to mind: chicha, the ancient corn beer, or pulque, the precursor to mescal, which is made from fermented agave sap. If the Mayans and other cultures loved their hot chocolate spiced up with chiles, why not these other favorite beverages?
Read Powis’ original article here.