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A Hot Time in the Old Archaeological Dig Tonight

Ancient people of Mesoamerica apparently liked a hot drink in the morning, too. A spicy hot drink, that is.
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A habañero plant with fruit and flower. (PHOTO: ANDRE KARWATH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

A habañero plant with fruit and flower. (PHOTO: ANDRE KARWATH/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Every year I try to grow hot peppers in my backyard. And every year, as with most of my horticultural endeavors, I get a tiny crop that, when compared just against the expense of water used, comes out to a per-unit cost exponentially higher than buying the product at Whole Foods.

This year, late in the season, I bought a six-pack of habañero seedlings. I eat hot food with a militant evangelism usually associated with reformed smokers, but for routine consumption habañeros are at the top of my comfort range. (Here’s a great article from The New Yorker about people who show I’m not ready to go pro any time soon.) So six plants might seem like overkill, a word that verges on literal accuracy in this usage. But given my gardening track record, I figured six plants ought to yield a harvest of roughly a half dozen peppers total; a bumper crop might approach double digits.

Four of my plants did not disappoint, which is to say they did disappoint. But two plants—I’d plopped them in the large container that had proven incapable of allowing anything not a weed to survive more than a month—went crazy. I now have a Sagan-esque bounty of peppers that I can’t consume by myself and, beyond the odd curiosity item, can’t give away. Oddly enough, the people who won’t deign to scald their intestines are full of helpful advice about what I can do with my piquant surplus. They must think I have an unending thirst for pepper-infused vodka.

There’s a lively academic trade in studying the putative medical benefits of chili peppers. Researchers have found evidence of pain relief, cancer prevention, weight loss, and gut protection.

Now some researchers, led by Terry G. Powis, an anthropologist at Kennesaw State, have given me an idea that suggests my helpful friends may not be far off. In looking for traces of cacao—primitive chocolate—in pottery dug up at an archaeological site, they discovered that people were probably consuming liquefied pepper concoctions. The spouted jars, cups, and jugs suggest the peppers were used in some sort of liquid or paste, the scientists report in the online journal PLOS One, but whether that was for a refreshing swig of pepper juice or to hold salsa is a matter of conjecture.

Some 38 percent of the pottery tested by scientists from Chiapa de Corzo, a well-known archaeological site in southern Mexico, showed evidence of Capiscum (i.e. peppers). Oddly enough, none of the containers showed traces of cacao. Since spicy hot chocolate to this day is a popular drink in Mexico, and has been at least since the time of Montezuma, this raises the possibility that the locals were drinking spicy beverages before they tumbled on the idea of drinking chocolate ones. (Imagine their chagrin when they did realize, although to be fair, bitter ol’ unsweetened cacao ain’t the same as Swiss Miss....)

Jose de Acosta, a Jesuit priest studying New Spain in the late 1500s, noted: "They say they make diverse sorts of it [chocolate], some hote [sic], some colde [sic] and some temperate, and put therein much of that chili; yea they make paste thereof."

Maybe they were adding chocolate to the chili, and not the other way around.

Capiscum is a New World genus. It’s been detected as a food at digs in Ecuador and Peru dating back six and four millennia respectively, but the Chiapa de Corzo find is the oldest evidence so far—about 400 B.C.E.—of consumption in Mesoamerica. (I have an Ecuador pepper-eating story which I won’t bore you with, but when some guy pulls a little red thing off a roadside bush and hands it to you with the suggestion you eat it, don’t.)

Powis and his colleagues are careful not to draw too large a conclusion from what they’ve found. The pottery they’ve analyzed were all associated with elite members of the ancient Mixe-Zoquean community, a people who appear to have had cultural ties with the Olmecs. They also found some of the containers in burial areas, which implies either that pepper-y substances were consumed at funerals or that they were buried with the dead. The oldest known tomb in Mesoamerica was uncovered in a pyramid here.

The scientists posit another idea, that the hot stuff was mixed with ash and used to coat the pots to keep pests out.

“Is it possible that the chili substance inside these vessels was used for medicinal, ritual, or magical purposes rather than culinary?” they ask. If so, this would be additional evidence that we ignore folk medicine at our own loss.

There’s a lively academic trade in studying the putative medical benefits of chili peppers. Xiu-Ju Luo, Jun Penga, Yuan-Jian Li, members of the Department of Pharmacology at China’s Central South University, collated a number of studied benefits of capsaicinoids and capsinoids, the active components in hot and sweet peppers respectively. The researchers found academic evidence of pain relief, cancer prevention, weight loss, cardiovascular improvement, and gut protection. But before you email me for my extra habañeros, know that capsaicin has been described as a “double edge sword,” at least in the cancer world, so be careful before you self-medicate with Tabasco sauce.

Meanwhile, pepper plants are being considered a new kind of ornamental plant. For the time being, I’m sad to relate, that’s their main role at Casa Todd.