Early Domestication of Chile Peppers Confirmed

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Early Domestication of
Chile Peppers Confirmed

By Dave DeWitt


Scientists, including researcher Linda Perry, writing in the journal Science (February 16, 2007), have proven that chile peppers were domesticated in South America at least by 6,000 years ago.  Although very few prehistoric pods and pollen have been found in archeological sites, a new technique has been developed to track and date the earliest uses of chile.  “We found that a widespread, but previously unidentified starch morphotype,” writes Perry, “is derived from chile pepper fruits and is commonly preserved on artifacts.”  This microfossil was documented in seven archeological sites ranging from The Bahamas to the Andes.
C. annuum–Ancho
The starches were recovered from sediment samples, milling stones, and food residues from cooking vessels.  The oldest positively identified starches were found at the sites of Loma Alta and Real Alta in southwestern Ecuador, and were dated at 6,000 years before present (B.P.).  Also found was evidence of maize (corn), squash, beans, and palms.  But since Ecuador is not considered to be the center of domestication for any of the five domesticated species, “The presence of domesticated chiles within this early complex, agricultural system indicates that these plants must have been domesticated elsewhere earlier that 6,000 years B.P. and brought into the region from either the north or the south.”
Baccatum Species
C. baccatumPod Variations
The scientists noted that none of the microfossils contained starches typical of the wild species of Capsicums, so all of the chiles were grown by the Amerindians living at the sites.  “The presence of domesticated plants used as condiments rather than as staple foods during the preceramic period indicates that sophisticated agriculture and complex cuisines arose early throughout the Americas and that the exploitation of maize, root crops, and chile peppers spread before the introduction of pottery,” Perry noted.  She added: “Evidence from both macrobotanical and microbotanical remains indicates that once chile peppers became incorporated into the diet, they persisted.”  In addition to chile peppers, maize was also present at all seven sites.  “Maize and chiles occur together from the onset of this record until European contact,” she concluded, “and, thus, represent an ancient Neotropical plant food complex.”
C. chinense–Peru Red
C. Frutescens
C. frutescens–Tabasco
Scientists speculate that Capsicum annuum was domesticated in Mexico or northern Central America; C. frutescens in the Caribbean; C. chinense in Amazonia; C. baccatum in Bolivia; and C. pubescens in the southern Andes.  Some experts believe that the earliest domestication may date to 10,000 years B.P., even though that would an extremely early domestication date.
C. pubescens
C. pubescens–Rocoto
            For another article on the early use of chile peppers in the Americas, see “Out of the Ash: The Prehistoric Chile Cuisine of Ceren,” here.


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