The origins of chili peppers
By Chef Lippe.
Around eight thousand years ago, the first wild chili pepper plants appeared in what is today the Iguazu Falls basin at the convergence of modern Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay in South America. This region still accounts for ninety percent of today’s wild chili pepper varieties known to exist.
Migrant birds fleeing the harsh winter weather of the Patagonia plains of modern Argentina, flying north, fed on the berries of the chili plants. The seeds of the fruit, not digested, were expelled during flight encapsulated in convenient fertilizer drops. Thus, chili plants spread throughout modern Brazil, the Amazon forest, and through successive migratory waves, reached the north of South America, Central America and eventually Mexico and North America. The varieties of chilies spread on these migratory patterns were of the genus Capsicum Annuum, Capsicum Frutescens, Capsicum Pubescens and the most common Capsicum Chinense. Not to get too scientific here, that means most of all of the varieties of chili we know today from Jalapeño to Bird’s Eye.
Capsicum belongs to a botanical family of plants known as “night shade” or solanaceae, along with the tomato, eggplant and tobacco among others.
One single other genus of Capsicum not spread with the other varieties was Capsicum Baccatum. Capsicum Baccatum was spread exclusively westward, towards the Andes Mountains, and today can only be found in Northern Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and southern Ecuador. What prompted this weird episode in the dissemination of this particular strand of chili is a mystery. Could it have been a specific kind of bird that had this migration pattern? But if so, why did it only spread this particular type of pepper and not the rest? And if so, why did the rest of the migrating bird population not spread Baccatum to the rest of South America as well? There is no explanation to this phenomenon. If you are reading this, and have the answer, please email me. We will update the story.
We have evidence through archeological and anthropological data that Chili plants were cultivated by the people of the Americas as far as six thousand years ago. The evidence points to the use of chili not only as food and medicine, but as currency as well. In fact, as late as early twentieth century, you could use “rantii” or chili ristras as bartering tools around Cuzco, Peru. We also have evidence that the Inca considered Chili as a deity and integrated it in religious ceremonies. Aya Uchu or “brother pepper” was one of the four deities of creation.
Domestication and harvesting of chili can be seen in most pre-Columbian societies including the Inca, the Aymara, the Tehuelche, the Tupinambá, Carijó, Tupiniquim, the Charrua, the Huari, the Aztec, the Maya, the Toltec and others. The Aztecs consumed a drink made of cocoa “cacao” and chili in a drink called “chicahuatl”. We find a very similar drink consumed by the Cicatec people of the Mexican southern highlands they call “Tepache” made with chocolate, fermented sugar cane juice and chilies.
Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World in the 1500’s, chili pepper found its way in cargo sent to Europe. Not noticed at first, and given to monastic orders for aesthetic purposes, it was given importance by sailors, who discovered that its use would prevent scurvy during long journeys due to its high content of vitamin C. In fact one cup of chopped bell peppers has more vitamin C content than an orange. Sailors in merchant ships were maybe the most common reason for the spread of chili peppers around the world. By 1600 chili had become staple in diets across the globe, from Northern Africa to Southeast Asia and beyond.
In a mere hundred years since its “discovery” by Europeans, chili pepper had taken over the diet and cuisines of countless people around the map that to this day cannot do without it. Try telling a Vietnamese country farmer that chilies are not native of Viet Nam; you will be laughed at in the face and regarded as a foolish foreigner.
That is the history of the origins of the chili plant as I know it. Any contributions to these facts are more than welcome. Enjoy your chili.