Chili Peppers - An American Domestication Story

Put a Little Spice in Your Life with the History of Chili Peppers

Chili Peppers in Santa Fe
Chili Peppers in Santa Fe. Mr T in DC

Chili pepper (Capsicum spp. L., and sometimes spelled chile or chilli) is a plant which was domesticated in the Americas at least 6,000 years ago. Its spicy goodness spread into cuisines throughout the world only after Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean and took it back with him to Europe. Peppers are widely considered the first spice to have been used by humans, and today there are at least 25 separate species in the family of American chili peppers and over 35 in the world.

Domestication Events

At least two, and perhaps as many as five separate domestication events are thought to have occurred. The most common type of chili today, and likely the earliest domesticated, is Capsicum annuum (the chili pepper), domesticated in Mexico or northern Central America at least 6,000 years ago from the wild bird pepper (C. annuum v. glabriusculum). Its prominence around the world is likely because it was the one that was introduced into Europe in the 16th century AD.

The other forms which may have been independently created are C. chinense (yellow lantern chili, believed to have been domesticated in northern lowland Amazonia), C. pubescens (the tree pepper, in the mid-elevation southern Andes mountains) and C. baccatum (amarillo chili, lowland Bolivia). C. frutescens (piri piri or tabasco chili, from the Caribbean) may be a fifth, although some scholars suggest it is a variety of C. chinense.

The Earliest Evidence of Domestication

There are older archaeological sites which include domesticated chili pepper seeds, such as Guitarrero Cave in Peru and Ocampo Caves in Mexico, ranging in age from 7,000-9,000 years ago. But their stratigraphic contexts are somewhat unclear, and most scholars prefer to use the more conservative date of 6,000 or 6,100 years ago.

A comprehensive examination of the genetic (similarities among the DNA from different types of chilies), paleo-biolinguistic (similar words for chili used in various indigenous languages), ecological (where modern chile plants are found) and archaeological evidence for chile pepper was reported in 2014. Kraft et al. argue that all four lines of evidence suggest that chili pepper was first domesticated in central-east Mexico, near Coxcatlán Cave and the Ocampo Caves.

Chili Peppers North of Mexico

Despite chili's prevalence in southwestern American cuisines, the evidence for early use there is late and very limited. The earliest evidence of chili peppers in the American southwest/northwest Mexico has been identified in Chihuahua state near the site of Casas Grandes, ca AD 1150-1300.

A single chili pepper seed was found at Site 315, a medium-sized adobe pueblo ruin in the Rio Casas Grandes Valley about two miles from Casas Grandes. In the same context--a trash pit directly underneath a room floor--was found maize (Zea mays), cultivated beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), cotton seeds (Gossypium hirsutum), prickly pear (Opuntia), goosefoot seeds (Chenopodium), uncultivated Amaranth (Amaranthus) and a possible squash (Cucurbita) rind.

Radiocarbon dates on the trash pit are 760 +/- 55 years before the present, or approximately AD 1160-1305.

Cuisine Effects

When introduced into Europe by Columbus, the chili launched a mini-revolution in cuisine; and when those chili-loving Spanish returned and moved into the Southwest, they brought the spicy domesticate with them. Chilies, a large part of central American cuisines for thousands of years, became most common north of Mexico in places where the Spanish colonial courts were most powerful.

Unlike the other central American domesticated crops of maize, beans, and squash, chili peppers did not become part of southwestern US/northwestern Mexican cuisine until after Spanish contact. Researchers Minnis and Whalen suggest that the spicy chili pepper may not have fit into local culinary preferences until a large influx of colonists from Mexico and (most importantly) a Spanish colonial government affected local appetites.

Even then, chilies were not universally adopted by all southwestern people.

Identifying Chili Archaeologically

Fruits, seeds and pollen of capsicum have been found in deposits at archaeological sites in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico beginning about 6000 years ago; at Huaca Prieta in the Andean foothills of Peru by ca. 4000 years ago, at Ceren, El Salvador by 1400 years ago; and in La Tigra, Venezuela by 1000 years ago.

Recently, the study of starch grains, which do preserve well and are identifiable to species, has allowed scientists to peg the domestication of chili peppers to at least 6,100 years ago, in southwestern Ecuador at the sites of Loma Alta and Loma Real. As reported in Science in 2007, the earliest discovery of chili pepper starches is from the surfaces of milling stones and in cooking vessels as well as in sediment samples, and in conjunction with microfossil evidence of arrowroot, maize, leren, manioc, squash, beans and palms.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Chili Peppers - An American Domestication Story." ThoughtCo, Feb. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/chili-peppers-an-american-domestication-story-170336. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, February 15). Chili Peppers - An American Domestication Story. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/chili-peppers-an-american-domestication-story-170336 Hirst, K. Kris. "Chili Peppers - An American Domestication Story." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/chili-peppers-an-american-domestication-story-170336 (accessed September 26, 2017).