Science News

Ancient Hot Stuff

Sun, 18th Feb 2007

Part of the show Science Q&A Show

Are you a fan of hot spicy food? Well it seems that us humans have been enjoying fiery food for a very long time indeed. In fact South Americans may have been spicing up their food with chillies for at least 6 thousand years. That's according to a new study which found miniscule traces of chillies in ancient cookware from Ecuador, a discovery that was something of an accident. For years, archaeologists have been scratching their heads over the identity of ancient grains of starch from South America which were not from any of the known staple food groups known from the region like maize and squash. But a team of scientists lead by Linda Perry from Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, have discovered that modern cultivated peppers, including chillies, have much larger starch grains that their wild relatives - and so taking another look at these mysterious ancient starch grains the team finally identified them as the fiery chilli pepper. So, we now know what has long been suspected but never proven, that the ancient south Americans were using chillies as a spice long before Christopher Columbus arrived and took chillies back to Europe from where they spread around the rest of the world. And perhaps the strangest thing about the ancient cultivation of chillies is why did people do it in the first place? Taking a bite of wild chilli must have been a blistering experience even for the most macho man, so why did people bother going to the trouble of domesticating them?


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