Ancient Chilies Suggest Spicy Cuisine in Early Mexico

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
July 10, 2007
The remains of centuries-old chili peppers found in Mexico suggest that tribes living as far back as A.D. 600 had a complex, spicy cuisine that could have been similar to that of the country's modern inhabitants.

Linda Perry, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., said her analysis of the chili pepper remains revealed that some of the fruits had been stored fresh while others had been dried.

"The fresh peppers might have been chopped up and used as garnish or salsa," Perry said. "The dried peppers might have been brought from somewhere else and thrown into a stew or ground up into a sauce."

"By finding that there were two different categories of use, that's a good indication that all sorts of different dishes were being seasoned by peppers and spices," Perry said (related wallpaper: download chilies to your desktop).

The remains, which represent at least ten different types of chili peppers, were part of meals that were prepared and eaten by Zapotec Indians between A.D. 600 and 1521.

Perry noted that remains of other plants—including corn, beans, and squash—were found in the same caves.

"All of the components of the [modern] Mexican diet were there," she said. "Whether the food was exactly the same, the main ingredients were there."

Perry and Kent Flannery, curator for zooarchaeology at the University of Michigan's Museum of Anthropology, co-authored a study of the peppers to be published in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chili Storage

Flannery originally found the chili remains in 1966 lying in two caves about 1,900 meters (6,200 feet) above sea level near the town of Mitla in the southern state of Oaxaca (see a map of Oaxaca).

Soon after, Flannery said via email, he sent the chilies to Barbara Pickersgill, a scientist in England who is a leader in the research of plant cultivation.

When Pickersgill retired recently, she sent the chili pepper remains to Perry at the Smithsonian.

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.

Spicy Heritage

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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