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Researchers find 6,000-year-old fossil evidence

Researchers, including a paleoethnobotanist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, recently found fossil evidence in seven archaeological sites ranging from the Bahamas to present-day Peru that showed people were eating domesticated chili peppers as long as 6,000 years ago. This makes chili peppers one of the oldest domesticated food sources in the Americas. The study will be published in the Feb. 15 edition of the journal Science.

"Before our research, there wasn't much archaeological evidence to show that prehistoric people in Central and South America were eating domesticated chili peppers," said Deborah Pearsall, professor of anthropology in MU's College of Arts and Science. "Chili peppers don't preserve well because when you cook with them, you eat most of them; you don't have husks or shells that are thrown away and preserved. That's why we used a technique that involved analyzing microscopic starch grains on cooking and grinding tools to find this new evidence."

Pearsall, who studied tools from sites in Ecuador and the Bahamas, teamed with a group of scientists doing research in various locations in Central and South America; the project was led by Linda Perry, a research associate at the Smithsonian National Museum of Nature History's Archaeobiology Program. Perry discovered an unknown microfossil starch grain while doing research in Venezuela, and when the other researchers compared notes, they realized that their work in the Bahamas, Panama, Ecuador and Peru also revealed the same unknown starch grain. After studying the starches of many domesticated and wild plants, Perry determined that the mystery starch was a chili pepper.

"We knew from historic and ethnographic records that people were eating domesticated chili peppers, but this archaeological evidence confirms those findings. It also shows us that chili peppers are one of the oldest domesticated food sources in the Americas and that people in distant areas all ate them. Th
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Source:University of Missouri-Columbia


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