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A Brief History of Chili Peppers from 6,100 Year Ago to Today

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The story of the chili pepper is a history of trade, a tale of migration, and a chronicle of the evolution of a food that is native to Mexico and Central America. The seeds of the chili pepper are thought to have originated in the wild, but it is hard to trace their origins; one might say they are the seeds that have evolved.

Chili peppers, that source of fiery heat that bring you from zero to one hundred in a blink, are arguably the most versatile and even versatile of all foods. Since they first appeared on the scene about 6,100 years ago, chili peppers have been used in both traditional and non-traditional concoctions: hot sauces, seasonings, salsa, even chili. This blog post will explore the chili pepper’s history over the past 6,000 years, from its beginnings in ancient Mexico to the present day.

Chiles, like many plants, have had a long history in the Americas. The earliest evidence of chiles has been found in 6,100 year-old pottery found in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico, and the oldest evidence of chiles grown in the Americas has been dated to the year 800. The first chiles to be grown in the Americas were the ancho and the poblano, both of which were grown in Mexico.

I was thinking about the strong chili* and how its popularity started with the commerce routes that shuttled between Portuguese empire territories when I was in Portugal, filling my gorge and losing my socks. The chili pepper’s history is one of the most fascinating instances of a simple, strong cuisine with a complicated backstory.

December 2015 was the first time this article was published. This page was last updated on June 20, 2022.

Chili peppers have a long history in South America…

Chili peppers are consumed every day by a fifth of the world’s population in nations all over the world. They are Capsicum family perennial shrubs that were unknown to the majority of the globe until Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in 1492.

Of course, Columbus did not “discover” them. Chilies are said to have originated in Brazil, Mexico, and other areas of South America, according to various hypotheses. A 2016 phylogenetic study of 24 of the 35 Capsicum strains, hot and non-spicy, discovered that they are native to the Andes region of western to northwestern South America. “Small red, spherical, berry-like fruits” were the wild Capsicum.

Chilies were domesticated and used in local cuisine in pre-Hispanic times in both South America and early Mesoamerica, a region that stretches from Central Mexico through Central America and northern Costa Rica.

Researchers in South America have discovered Capsicum starch grains on grinding stones and cooking pans recovered from home floors in southern Ecuador, which date back to approximately 6,000 years ago. These microfossil remnants represent some of the region’s oldest chili peppers. Furthermore, although many Mesoamerican records concentrate on the production of squash, maize, manioc, and other crops without mentioning chiles, an archeological research using microfossils has shown that the usage of chiles in Mesoamerica dates back to about 400 BCE.

Birds, according to scientists, are mostly responsible for the spread of wild chili peppers outside of their nuclear genesis regions, with subsequent domestication by Mesoamerican people. Birds don’t have receptors that detect the sting of a chili’s heat, and it doesn’t damage their digestive systems, as stated below.

Capsicum annuum, the progenitor of most of the peppers we eat today, was cultivated in pre-Hispanic times in dry areas of the Southwest, Texas, and Mexico.

But first, what causes your tongue to burn when you consume chili peppers?

Before we get into the past, let’s take a look at the pain element. A chemical called capsaicin is responsible for the burning and discomfort you experience after eating a chili pepper. Capsaicin consumption activates pain receptors in the body, alerting you to the fact that you may have done something possibly hazardous.

Chili peppers contain a chemical called capsaicin, which is the active component. Capsaicin, when consumed, activates pain receptors whose natural function is to warn the body to hazardous physical heat. This is activated in humans by the temperature sense receptor TRPV1, which also helps us drop a hot skillet if we forget oven mitts.

The working hypothesis is that consuming chilies gives us the same feeling as eating a too-hot piece of food, resulting in the burning sensation. TRPV1 receptor signaling may make us feel as though our lips are on fire, yet there is no tissue damage, according to experts. It’s a brain hiccup: our brain gets fooled into believing our tongue is on fire thanks to those pain receptors.

So, if it hurts, why do we consume them? According to Scientific American, we like the burn and tolerate the agony for the greater good. They write, “On Capsaicin: Why Do We Love to Eat Hot Peppers?” in an article titled “On Capsaicin: Why Do We Love to Eat Hot Peppers?”

Perhaps we seek out the unpleasant sensation of eating chilies while consciously keeping in mind that we are not in any risk. After all, people appear to enjoy – and actively seek out – a variety of other unpleasant but ostensibly safe sensations, such as the sensation of falling provided by rollercoasters or skydiving, the feelings of fear and anxiety experienced while watching horror movies, the physical pain experienced when jumping into icy water, or even the feelings of sadness experienced while watching a tear-jerker.

In an article for Nautilus on how chili came to China, the author writes:

The chili pepper, unlike other meals that people are used to eating, produces real pain when consumed. Scientists think that pain is an evolutionary relic. When capsaicin comes into touch with nerve endings, it activates a pain receptor, which is designed to detect the kind of heat that is really scorching hot. TRPV1 is a receptor that prevents us from doing stupid things like picking up a flaming branch with our bare hands or biting into something so hot that it would burn our lips.

Scientists have speculated that the evolutionary reason chilies burn is to deter animals from eating them. According to Harvard’s Cat Adams in “The Complicated Evolution of the Spicy Chili Pepper,” scientists discovered that although certain mammals shun spicy plants, birds do not, owing to the fact that birds lack the receptor to feel the “capsaicin burn,” while mammals do. As a result, even the spiciest chillies will cause no discomfort to birds, enabling their seeds to thrive. Cactus mice, on the other hand, ate the chili plants and crushed up all of the seeds in their teeth. This is not helpful for the plant’s survival.

So it seems logical that capsaicin would be an active deterrent for mammals, but not for birds (except for us crazy people who adore them). Regardless, we can’t ignore the suffering. Eating chilies isn’t for everyone, from weaponry to the much less harmless sobbing-while-eating-Sichuan-food.

Now, let’s return to the origins of chili peppers…

Columbus, of course, wasn’t searching for chiles.

Columbus was looking for a new trade route to Asia, as many of us heard in high school history lessons, and he had a strong need for black peppercorns. Because of their high worth as a commodity, peppercorns were dubbed “black gold.” They were often used to pay rent or wages. Until the late Middle Ages, nearly all of the world’s black pepper came from India’s Malabar Coast. From there, it was traded to the rest of Europe through the Levant and Venice merchants – until the Ottoman empire shut off the trade route in the mid-1400s.

Without access to the traditional channels, European explorers went out in quest of fresh riches for their crowns and new ways to the valuable spices of Indonesia’s Molucca Islands, including as cloves, mace, and nutmeg.

Columbus, as we all know, did not discover black peppercorns or a spice trade to Asia. Despite this, he referred the Caribbean islands as “Indies” and the indigenous people as “Indians.” He also dubbed the spicy plant he picked off the beaches of what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti a perplexing pimiento, after the black pepper (pimenta) he was looking for. This pimiento, known as aji in the Iberian Peninsula, was brought back to show and tell, along with many other novel delicacies that would become popular in the Old World.

Chili peppers had been completely tamed by the Indigenous people by the time Columbus arrived in the New World.

As previously stated, archaeologists have dated the progressive domestication of the chile to between 5000 and 6000 BC, implying that Columbus was a bit late to the party. Chilies were widely employed in Aztec and Mayan cultures, not just to flavor food but also to fumigate homes and aid in the treatment of sickness, according to early conqueror accounts. The word “chili” comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. (Source: Multiple lines of evidence pointing to Mexico as the birthplace of the domesticated chili pepper Capsicum annuum.)

history of chili peppers

So Columbus is the one who brought them to the rest of the world?

No, not quite.

Columbus was a key figure in the chili’s exponential expansion across the Old World. “The chili pepper dispersed so quickly and completely that botanists long believed it to be native to India or Indochina,” the editors of Chilies to Chocolate write, “but all experts now agree that it is a New World plant with origins in South America.”

Despite the fact that he brought the aji back to Spain, the Portuguese and their extensive trade channels are to blame for the fast spread of chili peppers across the globe. However, the histories of Spain and Portugal are deeply entwined, and Spanish traders are also responsible for the introduction of the chili pepper across Asia. Nonetheless, the literature attributes the broader spread to Portuguese trade routes:

Jean Andrews addresses this explicitly in the journal of the American Geographical Society of New York, stating that the Portuguese:

despite the fact that the source of the Mesoamerican plant complex [of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers] was in Spanish colonies and the complex was first discovered by Columbus on several voyages, including the first, were far more influential in the spread of the Mesoamerican plant complex [of maize, beans, squash, and chili peppers]. (Source: Mesoamerican Food Complex Diffusion to Europe)

Her argument is based on the fact that the Portuguese imported a particular kind of Mexican-derived pepper (C.Annuum var. annuum) rather than the South American pepper (C.chinense) that Columbus named pimiento and carried to Spain.

Furthermore, compared to the Portuguese, who covertly dealt in the New World despite the Treaty of Tordesillas giving most of the area to Spain in 1494, Spanish commerce with the New World in the first half of the 16th century was very restricted. Then there was Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, who in 1498 found a passage from South America to Africa and India through the Cape of Good Hope, paving the way for the chili pepper to leave Brazil and spread across the globe.

Under the command of Afonzo de Albuquerque, the Portuguese conquered Goa in 1510. The strategic city, which is located on the spice-rich Malabar Coast, created greater Portuguese dominance over the spice trade. According to Andrews, a Portuguese diplomat in India from 1500 to 1516, the new spice of chili peppers was appreciated by Indian chefs who were already producing spicy dishes due to their familiarity with pungent black pepper and stinging ginger. In India, this strong red plant would thrive.

where do chili peppers come from?One of my many market wanderings in Vietnam yielded these chilies.

New World commodities and meals were channeled via Portuguese maritime channels in the years that followed. As the Portuguese empire expanded — to include Brazil, East Asian islands, Africa, the Middle East, and India — forts, industries, and naval outposts studded the coasts, facilitating commerce between colonies. Furthermore, Chinese, Gujarati, and Arabic merchants were able to add New World products to their current trade riches through the sea routes to Melacca and Indonesia.

Another trading route began at Diu, a small island off India’s west coast. In the 16th century, Diu fell to the Portuguese after the Sultan of Gujarat established an uneasy and ultimately failed defensive alliance with them. The city’s position made it an important port on the Arabian sea’s commerce routes. Our chilies traveled from the Gulf of Cambray’s Diu and Surat, inland toward the Ganges, up the Brahmaputra River, and over the Himalayas to Sichuan. Anyone who has wept over a dish of Sichuan cuisine understands how vital they are to the Chinese province.

I could go on, but I’m not going to.

The argument is that the Portuguese empire’s incredible width is mainly responsible for the fast spread of chili peppers throughout the globe.

But, didn’t the chili peppers come up via Mexico for North America?

Both yes and no.

I thought the same thing, that chilies grew naturally over the relatively short distance between Mexico and the United States. According to some publications, this is true. As previously stated, wild kinds of chilies existed throughout the Southwest, Texas, and, of course, Mexico. Subsistence foods like maize, beans, and squash were also traded botanically from Mesoamerica to North America. The Southern Valleys of Mexico, where capsicum chiles were produced, were the origin of these trading routes.

So, pre-Columbus, smaller-scale trading networks brought chiles to North America. They were then spread on a wider scale and with domesticated types thanks to Columbus’ “discovery” and the Portuguese. This dispersion includes the spread of slavery through trade channels, which is a notion cited in almost every book I’ve read about chiles. According to the hypothesis, the chile pepper was accessible in the Southern United States prior to the slave trade via trade routes and Indigenous cuisine, but it became popular during the slave trade.

According to Chili: Small Fruit Sets Global Palettes on Fire, the chili was “such a crucial part of the African diet that slave traders carried large quantities with them on transatlantic voyages and plantations grew them in gardens for kitchen use,” after being introduced into West African cuisine via Portuguese colonies and trade routes.

origin of chili peppersBikaner, India, dried chillies

According to Jean Andrews in her book Chilies to Chocolate, chili peppers “were found nowhere north of modern-day Mexico until after colonization by Northern Europeans.” Pre-Hispanic chilies from Mesoamerica have been discovered as a cultivated crop in the United States Southwest, contradicting this theory. Regardless, it was the “discovery” of the New World that catapulted the chile into the worldwide limelight, a space that was further extended when the Dutch and British empires broke the Portuguese’s naval monopoly about 1600, flooding the market with additional products.

Despite its earlier usage in tiny pockets, the chile did not gain widespread popularity in the United States until slaves from the West Indies and West Africa, who were already cooking with chilies brought over on previous trade routes, began growing them in the South.

In the voyage of the chile, there has been more than one domestication event.

The path I’ve shown here isn’t the only one that the chili’s eruption has taken. In botany, domestication refers to the process through which humans transformed wild chiles into cultivated versions that suit their needs.

Multiple domestication episodes are thought to have happened along the chili’s path to global dominance, according to experts. In their aftermath, cuisines evolved. The chile pepper’s circuitous popularity seemed to me worthy of its own article, since it traveled from Central America and the Caribbean through Spain, Brazil to West Africa and India, then back to North America via the slave trade.

Chili peppe history and spread. image from Nautilus MagIn the late 15th century, Christopher Columbus discovered the chili pepper in the Caribbean. Soon after, merchants from Spain and Portugal, preoccupied with dominating the spice market, disseminated the chile all across the world. The chili’s journey from nation to country is shown by the red lines and dates. Image courtesy of Nautilus Magazine

After all, it has pervaded much of the world as we know it, including our beverage choices. According to a Bloomberg article from 2019, beer laced with chiles is the next big thing.

While craft beer enthusiasts may use IBUs (International Bitterness Units) to estimate the hop bitterness of a brew, what about SHUs (Scoville Heat Units, a measurement of chili pepper heat)? Craft brewers are experimenting with intriguing new taste combinations, so beers with heat are popular right now. Ales and lagers brewed with chili peppers are frequent enough for “Chile Beer” to be a recognized style on BeerAdvocate.com, whether they’re produced using spicy pepper juice, oils, or entire peppers.

I lived in Asia for eight years and it’s a completely other ballgame in terms of social standards. If the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico gets its way, space may be next!

* According to the far-too-long amount of time I spent researching about chil(l)i(e)s’ spelling, American English is typically chili but may be chile, while British English is always chilli. More about this perplexing job may be found in the Columbia Journalism Review’s Language Corner article “The hot argument over chilies”*.

More information on the history of chili peppers may be found here.

I never get as satisfied by a micro-history as I do by a book, so I wanted to make sure that people who wanted to celebrate chili peppers in the kitchen and beyond had choices.

Books on Chiles and the Foods that Use Them

Rachel Lauden’s book Cuisine and Empire: Cooking throughout World History (highly recommended). The lengthy book by Laudan takes us through history, tracing the development and collapse of some of the world’s most famous cuisines. She educates us about how food influences everything in society, from health, the economics, politics, society, and the gods, in less of a micro-history and more of a celebration of culinary philosophy and food culture throughout time. As a consequence, people’s eating habits changed dramatically, resulting in the emergence of new cuisines that dominated the globe.

Mark Miller’s The Great Chile Book If you’re curious in chilies, this full-color guide will take you on a journey through 100 different chillies, each with a description, a hotness scale, and a description. While there isn’t much in the way of culinary anthropology in this book, it’s an excellent place to start since it includes backgrounders on how chilies are utilized in different cultures across the globe.

Gary Paul Nabhan, Kraig Kraft, and Kurt Michael Friese wrote Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail. Chasing Chiles offers a more serious political message, examining the impact of climate change on how we harvest and produce our food, as well as what we may do if agriculture becomes unrecognizable in the future. The writers decided to do so via the lens of the chile since it has “captivated imaginations and taste senses for thousands of years” all across the globe, making it a universal crop that can be used as a powerful message tool in this book. While chiles may be cultivated in places other than their native lands, certain heritage species are succumbing to changing soil and climatic circumstances. The book contains not just study (and field research!) but also history and recipes from across the globe, as well as conversations with farmers, chefs, and ethnobotanists.

Alex Stupak’s Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. Empellón Taqueria in New York, owned by Alex Stupak, is a favorite of many. This cookbook, which takes a deeper look at the simple taco, is a lovely read with glossy pictures that make your mouth wet. From the fundamentals, such as making tortillas with masa, through condiments, salsas, and moles, this book makes the case that Mexican cuisine is “OT melted cheese over tortilla chips,” as the late, great Anthony Bourdain put it. It is neither simple nor straightforward. At halftime, it’s not only “bro food.” It is, in reality, ancient—even older than Europe’s major cuisines—and often richly nuanced, refined, delicate, and sophisticated.”

Paul Freedman’s book Food: A History of Taste. This beautifully illustrated coffee table book brings together articles from historians all around the globe to provide a comprehensive culinary timeline. From antiquity to the present day, the book covers not just history but also culinary etiquette and current taste preferences. It’s a stunning book that would make a wonderful gift for a foodie in your life.

Jack Turner’s Spice: A History of Temptation. This history of spices and the spice trade, written by Jack Turner, a Brit with a wonderful sense of humour, takes you through the centuries and into the thoughts and palates of explorers from hundreds of years ago to the current day.

Diana Kennedy’s Mexico’s Cuisines & Flavors. This is a link to the whole works of the incomparable Diana Kennedy on Amazon, since she is obviously a Mexican culinary expert. She’s authored nine books in all, including The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, which I began with, and the massive (10lb!) Oaxaca Al Gusto, which became my taste bible when I relocated to Southern Mexico.

Chili Pepper-Related Articles

Lucky Peach’s guide to the chilies of Mexico. We’ve lost this wonderful artwork with animated chiles to distinguish between the numerous in Mexico, sadly, since Lucky Peach is no longer in business. “Dark brown and triangular in form, ancho chiles are really simply dried, fully mature poblano chilies,” according to its Ancho section. They have a sour flavor similar to dried fruit with a little green accent, and although they aren’t very peppery, you may come across a furious one in the litter. Anchos, like guajillos, are a workhorse chili in the Mexican kitchen: plentiful, cheap, and used in a variety of traditional recipes.”

ancho chili history

More information may be found in this summary.

Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian’s book The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas is a history of disease, food, and ideas. pp. 163-188 in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring 2010).

Chipotle-Inspired Food Art and Chipotle-Inspired Foods

Because it’s beautiful: Mark Miller’s Chiles of the World.

And here’s my own poster: a Mexican food map!

Finally, I’d like to express my gratitude to my brother for the picture of a horse cautiously eyeing chile peppers, which he took on his trip to Nepal.

-Jodi

 

 

history of chili peppers

The word “chili” is thought to be of Mexican origin and first appeared as “chili” in writing around 1590. The chili pepper itself is thought to have originated in Central America around 5,000 years ago. Chili peppers were first used in Mexico as a spice and they were also used as a remedy by indigenous people for various illnesses.. Read more about origin of chilli and let us know what you think.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When were Chili Peppers discovered?

The Chili Peppers are a rock band from Los Angeles, California. They were discovered in 1967 by music producer and songwriter Jack Sherman.

Where did chili peppers originated from?

Chili peppers originated from the Americas.

Did peppers come from the Old World?

Yes, peppers were brought to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors.

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