Perry then analyzed the ancient chilies, which will be added to the Smithsonian's collection.
Perry and Flannery think the Zapotecs frequented the caves. Hunters probably used them as shelters when they'd traveled too far from their village to return the same day.
Farmers cultivating crops nearby probably also used the caves as storage before transporting the food to the village.
(Related: "New World Farming Began Around Same Time As Near East's" [June 28, 2007].)
The crop supply was probably needed because the village had become so large that its population couldn't be sustained by local produce, Perry said.
And crops grown and stored at this higher elevation wouldn't be destroyed by flooding that might wipe out the harvest nearer the village.
For the latest study, Perry examined the remains of 122 chili peppers from the caves.
She compared her work to a shopper examining chili peppers today at a modern grocery store.
"I do a lot of cooking, and I like spicy foods," Perry said. "I was very interested in how they used the peppers [and whether] it was similar to how they are used today.
"I think it's interesting, in that it shows the really rich ancient culinary heritage in Oaxaca. I would love to know exactly what dishes they were making."
Perry said she hadn't determined whether the ancient chili pepper remains are identical to modern plants or are remains of species that are now extinct.
Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books
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