Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Hot stuff

Given how hot South Asian and South East Asian food is, it almost seems incredible that chili peppers originated in the Americas. The old world, and India in particular, were famed for their spices, including black pepper. But the good red and green stuff was introduced to Asia only after Columbus stumbled upon America (and the fool still wanted to prove that he’d reached India). Anyway, it’s needless to say that a whole bunch of people across the world are addicted to the hot stuff.

But how long has it been since the humble chili made it to our (at least the native American) plates?

It looks like the chili’s been on our plates perhaps even before humans made plates (or pottery technologies developed). They’ve been cultivated and eaten for over 6000 years. At least that is what some researchers from the Smithsonian have discovered. And their discovery was almost accidental.

For many years, researchers had found well preserved starch granules in specific sites (I cannot even imagine how people go around looking for almost fossilized starch grains). Most of these were identified as starch grains from maize or squash, which were probably staple food for the Americans then. However, many of the starch grains were not identified and remained a puzzle. Apparently, no one tested chili peppers, because they assumed that early farmers would concentrate on growing staple food, like maize or squash. To make things harder, chili peppers don’t leave microfossils, and pollen (or most other organic matter, really) doesn’t preserve all that well in the wet, hot tropics.

But these researchers found some starch grains embedded in some stone tools and cookware, and were confirmed to be chili pepper starch grains (using a number of techniques). The archeological site where these were found, and the tools themselves were over 6000 years old, in a very early human settlement in Ecuador. What’s more, similar starch grains were found in a few other sites, across South America.

This really amazes me, partly because I think the “hotness” of chili peppers were evolved by plants ostensibly to protect themselves from predators. When we bite into a chili, there is that moment of pure, indescribable anguish, as the sinuses are cleared and the eyes water (while the tongue, throat and bowels quiver in terror). Why do we keep going back to chili peppers? And why, why did people 6000 years ago decide to start domesticating and cultivating pepper? (Someone needs to go and test if eating chili peppers releases endorphins, and gives us an addictive “high”).

(You can read the original paper here, in Science 16 February 2007:Vol. 315. no. 5814, pp. 986 – 988. Picture from Nature doi:10.1038)


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Wavefunction said...

The way the hot and cold receptors actually mimic the sensation of hot and cold temperatures is interesting.
That's why if we drink hot coffee after eating hot chili, it feels hotter, because the channels are already open!
Look up the page of David Julius who is one of the pioneers in the field. In one interesting development, he found that spider toxins activate the capsaicin receptor!
Parrots seem to have evolved a counterdefense against green chilis!

Sunil said...

Jon, thanks.

Ashutosh, I actually have read quite a few papers from Julius's lab, particularly in a grad school short course on sensory perception.

I particularly liked some of their recent work on wasabi receptors (and reversible covalent modifications). I was planning to blog about that sometime, in greater detail.

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