Capsicum and Culture: Archaeology

Considering that chile peppers produce their pungency to keep mammals like us from eating them, we sure have quite a fascination with them… and that reaches back amazingly far.

Chile Peppers in Archaeology

Tello-SteleAccording to latest research, chile peppers were already cultivated in various locations in South and Central America in 6000 BCE (Perry et al. 2007*).
An interesting case for that is the Tello Stela from Chavin de Huantar in the Peruvian Andes.
It shows, among other things, a cayman holding chile peppers in its claws. All subtropical-Amazonian species, not Andean ones… And all that from the time around 900 BCE.

There are also archaeological findings (by Richard MacNeish), which have been known longer, pointing to the consumption of chile peppers in the 7th. century BCE in the Valle de Tehuacan, Puebla.

Other indicators of the chile peppers’ importance are their use in the names of localities (such as the glyph for Monte Alban) and their earlier (Aztec) use as a form of tribute.

From Archaeology to History

Chile seller from Codex Florentino
Chile seller from Codex Florentino

Chile peppers, due to their common use, were an important commodity. In his Historia General de las Cosas De Nueva España (Codex Florentino), Bernardino de Sahagun describes the chile trader as one of the main occupations, a salesman offering:

“mild red chilli, broad, chilli, hot green chilli, yellow chilli, cuitlachilli, tenpilchilli, chichioachilli … water chilli, conchilli … smoked chilli, small chilli, tree chilli, thin chilli, such which are like bugs… green chilli, pointed red chilli, a late variety, such coming from Arzitziuacan, Tochmilco, Huauxtepec, Michoacan, Anauac, the Huaxteca, the Chichimeca.”

Interestingly, he points out that bad chile peppers came from moist areas, and did not burn well…
…which is particularly poignant because the chile pepper was not only supposed to burn in the mouth, but was also burnt: as a means of children’s education in the Aztec upper classes, but also as a way of smoking out enemies.

In South America, as in Central America, there are (were) ritual uses of chile peppers. Hints are extant, much more is oftentimes not known. A case in point is the Tello Stela, which seems to have had a religious function (and depicts chile peppers in the claws of a caiman).

Some uses are more eaily described, but are also strange enough…:

Chile pepper is added to different ritually used drugs, e.g. tobacco (when used as snuff), ayahuasca, coca, maybe because it supports the intake of those drugs’ active substances.
On the other hand, it is reportedly given to Waorani-Indian men by their wives to sober them up if they have taken too much ayahuasca… (Rätsch 1998).

There is also, for example, a link between chile peppers and orixas (gods) in the Brazilian Candomblé and Santería. Many of the food offerings, in particular to Ogun, god of iron, strength and war, need to be spiced with chile… Then again, these religions are popular in the Bahia region of Brazil where chile peppers are very popular anyways.

Literature:

  • de Sahagun, Fray Bernardino. Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva Espana (Codex Florentino)
  • Linda Perry, Ruth Dickau, Sonia Zarrillo, Irene Holst, Deborah M. Pearsall, Dolores R. Piperno, Mary Jane Berman, Richard G. Cooke, Kurt Rademaker, Anthony J. Ranere, J. Scott Raymond, Daniel H. Sandweiss, Franz Scaramelli, Kay Tarble, James A. Zeidler. 2007. Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers (Capsicum spp. L.) in the Americas. Science, 16 February 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5814, pp. 986 – 988

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