Thursday, February 15, 2007

Prehistoric Chile's Found in South America

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Here's a hot, new discovery: archaeologists have traced what they believe is evidence of the first home-grown chili peppers, used in South America 6,100 years ago.

And it was people in tropical, lowland areas of what is now western Ecuador who first spiced up their cuisine, not those from higher, drier Mexico and Peru as was previously assumed, said Scott Raymond, a University of Calgary archaeologist.

Raymond and his team made the finding by analyzing starch microfossils from grinding stones and charred ceramic cookware recovered from seven sites in the Americas. Their report is published in the journal Science.

"What's very satisfying about this evidence is that it comes from residues on pottery, so the association of these crops with food, with the pots and with the dates is all very tight," he said. "We can, without any kind of reasonable doubt, argue that these plants were there at that time."

The pepper species cultivated in the villages -- the earliest known settlements in the Western Hemisphere -- grew naturally only to the east of the Andes. That means that the people in the villages of the tropical region transported them across the mountains to grow them, Raymond said.

Results from the Canadian-U.S.-Venezuelan project yielded evidence that peppers were farmed in the region more than 1,000 years before the plants were cultivated in Peru or Mexico, Raymond said.

It is not known yet if chili peppers were used only as a condiment for the culture's diet of maize, beans and yams, or if they were also grown for medicinal purposes, he said.

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