Spicy finds from before Columbus

People living in areas extending from the Bahamas to southern Peru cultivated and consumed chili peppers at least 6,100 years ago, a new study finds. Only after Columbus’ voyages to the New World did the spicy condiments reach other parts of the world, say Linda Perry of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues.

Perry’s team identified distinctively shaped microscopic starch grains from domesticated chili peppers on grinding stones, inside charred pots, and in sediment from seven ancient villages in Central and South America, as well as at a Bahamian settlement. Estimated radiocarbon ages for the sites range from 1,000 to 6,100 years.

Artifacts from each of the ancient New World locations also yielded starch grains from maize and root crops, including arrowroot and squash. Sophisticated agricultural practices and complex cuisines had begun to spread throughout the Americas before the introduction of pottery approximately 3,000 years ago, the scientists conclude in the Feb. 16 Science.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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