for National Geographic News
Domesticated chili peppers started to spice up dishes across the Americas at least 6,000 years ago, according to new research tracing the early spread of the crop.
Peppers quickly spread around the world after Christopher Columbus brought them back to Europe at the end of the 15th century, but their ancient history had been poorly known until now.
The new research is based on the discovery that domestic chili peppers leave behind telltale starch grains.
The findings shed light on the origins, domestication, and dispersal of the fiery fruits.
"We're excited to be able to finally trace this spice," said Linda Perry, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.
Perry and colleagues report the finding in today's issue of the journal Science.
The researchers were intrigued by starch grains they found on artifacts collected at seven sites ranging from the Bahamas to southern Peru.
The grains look like tiny jelly doughnuts squished in their middles and didn't match those from obvious starchy foods such as potatoes, cassava, and other roots.
"It was only by accident that I figured out their source," Perry said.
She recalled hearing that peppers cause intestinal distress. But that was odd, because the condition usually results from undigested starches, and Perry didn't think peppers contained starches.
"Then the light bulb lit up—maybe they do have starches—and I decided to take a look," she said.
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