Ancient Chilies Turned Up the Heat (ca. 600 AD)

By: The Scribe on Friday, September 21, 2007

Remnants of ancient chili peppers were found in cave in southern Mexico, suggesting that the region’s Zapotec people enjoyed spicy cuisine similar to today’s Mexican fare!

It appears that the ancient inhabitants of a cave in southern Mexico weren’t very good about cleaning up after themselves in the kitchen – in 1966, an archaeologist working around the Mexican town of Mitla stumbled across the remains of about 122 ancient chili peppers! The pepper pieces were distributed between two caves, and represent at least ten different varieties of chili peppers.

Analysis of the chili pepper remains showed that some of the ancient fruits had actually been kept fresh while others were dried and stored – much in the same way a person could purchase dried chili pepper flakes in a grocery store today. The likely explanation is that the inhabitants here would chop up the fresh peppers and use them for salsa or as a meal garnish, while the dried pieces were probably thrown into a sauce or stew.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because it is – further investigation into the caves also revealed the ancient remains of beans, corns, and squash, all staples in the diet of modern Mexicans today! However, the evidence certainly seems to lean toward the idea that today’s Mexicans borrowed their culinary traditions from the ancient Zapotec Indians, who lived in the area between 600 and 1521 AD.

But why would anyone store their food supplies in a cave, and was anyone actually cooking there? Considering the known locations of Zapotec settlements in the area, the caves were probably used by Zapotec hunters as night shelters – if they’d gone too far from their village on a hunt to be able to return safely in the same day, they could stay in the cave, eat a meal, and rest before continuing their journey in the morning.

A Zapotec palace in Mitla, the closest city to the ancient caves where chili pepper remains were found.

There also may have been crop fields nearby, which would have made the caves very handy for temporary crop storage, before transporting them to the village. Since the caves are about 1,900 meters above sea level, this would have made them ideal for crop storage – at this elevation, the harvested crops wouldn’t be threatened by flooding.

Although it remains to be seen whether the kinds of chili peppers found here are similar to modern species or if they are remnants of now-extinct varieties, the fact remains that the culinary heritage of southern Mexico has a much richer and distinct history than anyone had previously suspected.

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