and Nancy Gerlach
“The fruit [of the Peruvian Uchu chile] is as indispensable to the natives as salt to the whites.” ‑‑Friedrich Alexander von Humboldt, 1814
For more than 10,000 years, mankind has been fascinated by a seemingly innocuous plant with bright‑colored fruits that bite back when bitten. Although the chile pepper has risen in our estimation from lowly weed to celebrity spice, the secrets of its domestication, its discovery by Europeans, and its subsequent spread around the world are still being uncovered. Often mistakenly thought to be of African or Indian origin, chile peppers are absolutely American; along with corn, squash, and beans, they are among the earliest plants domesticated by mankind in the New World.
Part 1, The Tolerated Weed
According to botanist Barbara Pickersgill, the genus Capsicum, to which all chiles belong, originated in the remote geologic past in an area bordered by the mountains of southern Brazil to the east, by Bolivia to the west, and by Paraguay and northern Argentina to the south. Not only does this location have the greatest concentration of wild species of chiles in the world, but here, and only here, grow representatives of all the major domesticated species within the genus. Another chile botanist, W. Hardy Eshbaugh, believes that the location for the origin of chile peppers was further east, in central Bolivia along the Rio Grande.
The Chiltepin, “Mother of all Chiles”
Scientists are not certain about the exact time frame or the method for the spread of both wild and domesticated species from the southern Brazil-Bolivia area, but they suspect that birds were primarily responsible. The wild chiles (like their undomesticated cousin of today, the chiltepin) had erect, red fruits that were quite pungent and were very attractive to various species of birds that ate the whole pods. The seeds of those pods passed through their digestive tracts intact and were deposited on the ground encased in a perfect fertilizer. In this manner, chiles spread all over South and Central America long before the first Asian tribes entered the New World and settled it.
When mankind arrived in the Americas more than 10,000 years ago, about 25 species of the genus Capsicum existed in South America. Five of these species were later domesticated; however, some of the other wild species were and still are occasionally utilized by man. Two of the five domesticated species of chiles, C. baccatum and pubescens, never migrated beyond South America. Baccatum, known as “Aji,” merely extended its range from southern Brazil west to the Pacific Ocean and became a domesticated chile of choice in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Likewise, Capsicum pubescens left Brazil to be domesticated in the Andes, where it is known as “rocoto.” Its range today is primarily in the higher elevations of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, although it was introduced during historical times into mountainous areas of Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Three other Capsicum species that were later domesticated are annuum, chinense, and frutescens. These closely related species shared a mutual, ancestral gene pool and are known to botanists as the annuum-chinense-frutescens complex. They seem to have sprung up in the wilds of Colombia and later migrated individually to Central America and Amazonia. These three species were all in place when mankind arrived on the scene, and, apparently, each type was domesticated independently–annuum in Mexico, chinense in Amazonia (or possibly Peru), and frutescens in southern Central America. These three species have become the most commercially important chiles, and the story of their domestication and further spread is revealed in the archaeological record.
The earliest evidence of chile peppers in the human diet is from Mexico, where archaeologist R.S. MacNeish discovered chile seeds dating from about 7500 B.C. during his excavations at Tamaulipas and Tehuacan. This find and an intact pod from Peru’s Guitarrero Cave (dated 6500 B.C.) seem to indicate that chiles were under cultivation approximately 10,000 years ago. However, that date is extremely early for crop domestication and some experts suggest that these specimens are chiles that were harvested in the wild rather than cultivated by man. The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) was also found in the same excavation levels, and scientists cannot be certain if they were wild or domesticated varieties. Experts are certain, however, that chile peppers were domesticated by at least 3300 B.C.
Ethnobotanists, scientists who study the relationship of plants to man, have theorized that during the domestication process, chiles were first accepted as “tolerated weeds.” They were not cultivated but rather collected in the wild when the fruits were ripe. The wild forms had erect fruits which were deciduous, meaning that they separated easily from the calyx, and fell to the ground. During the domestication process, whether consciously or unconsciously, early Indian farmers selected seeds from plants with larger, non-deciduous, and pendant fruits.
The reasons for these selection criteria are a greater yield from each plant and protection of the pods from the chile-hungry birds. The larger the pod, the greater will be its tendency to become pendant rather than to remain erect. Thus the pods became hidden amidst the leaves and did not protrude above them as beacons for birds. The selection of varieties with the tendency to be non-deciduous ensured that the pods remained on the plant until fully ripe and thus were resistant to dropping off as a result of wind or physical contact. The domesticated chiles gradually lost their natural means of seed dispersal by birds and became dependent upon human intervention for their continued existence. Because chiles cross-pollinate, hundreds of varieties of the five domesticated chiles developed over thousands of years. The color, size, and shape of the pods of these domesticated forms varied enormously. Ripe fruits could be red, orange, brown, yellow, or white. Their shapes could be round, conic, elongate, oblate, or bell-like, and their size could vary from the tiny fruits of chiltepins or tabascos to the large pods of the anchos and New Mexican varieties. However, no matter what the size or shape of the pods, they were readily adopted into the customs and cuisines of all the major civilizations of the New World.