Chili peppers are eaten by a quarter of the earth’s population every day, in countries all over
the globe. They belong to the Capsicum family, and were unknown to most people until Christopher Columbus made his way to the New World in 1492.
A 2016 phylogenetic study of 24 Capsicum strains found that they are native to an area along the Andes of western to north-western South America. That’s where the “Mother of all Chili”, the Aji Charapita Pepper comes from.
Use of chilies in South American and early Mesoamerica lead to domestication in those areas and use in local cuisine in pre-Hispanic times, dating them back around 6,000 years.
Columbus was a little late to the game, by the time he made it to the New World, chili peppers were already fully domesticated by the Indigenous population.
Columbus called it pimiento, after the black pepper (pimenta) that he so desperately sought. Black peppercorns were known as “black gold” because of their value as a commodity.
Early reports from conquistadors cited a large presence of chilies in Aztec and Mayan traditions, used not only to flavor food but also to fumigate houses and to help cure illness. The “chili” in chili pepper is derived from Nahuatl, an Aztec language.
Scientists believe that birds are mainly responsible for the spread of wild chili peppers out of their origination areas, with domestication via Mesoamerican populations thereafter. Birds don’t have receptors that feel the sting of a chili’s spice, and it doesn’t cause any harm to their digestive systems.
Today, there are 26 wild Chili pepper and five domesticated species known and it is unthinkable in modern cooking to do without.
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