Chili peppers are used globally in a wide variety of cuisines thanks to their intense heat and flavor. They are consumed by over a quarter of the world’s population daily, yet few know their origin, and those that think they do are often only partially correct. So, where do peppers come from? Well, chili pepper history is both exciting and complex. Let’s dive into the origins of hot peppers to get a better understanding of the fruit (yes, fruit) that we all so love.
Table of Contents
- Where do peppers come from?
- What are the oldest chili peppers?
- Proliferation of chilies across the globe
- Countries known for their love of peppers
Where do peppers come from?
Chili peppers are believed to have originated from the northern Amazon basin making them indigenous throughout Central and South America, Mexico, the southern United States, and West Indies by natural spread. This region still has the largest number of wild chilies in the world. The use of wild chilies as a spice in tropical America led to the earliest domestication of the plant in pre-Hispanic times.
Chili peppers and sweet peppers both are part of the capsicum genus. Historians have identified starch grains of the capsicum genus in cooking pots and milling stones dating back to over 6,000 years ago — discovered from remains of ancient ruins in southwestern Ecuador. These microfossils remain some of the earliest evidence of chilies in the tropical American local cuisine.
There are dozens of capsicum species, but only five are domesticated. All the five of these domesticated chili pepper species trace their origin to tropical America. These varieties include:
- C. annuum: The Capsicum annuum originates from Mexico or the northern part of Central America. This pepper variety has the most significant prominence globally, probably because it found its way into Europe earlier than the other varieties. These peppers are characterized by thicker walls, which makes them ideal for sauces. This species comes in a wide variety of shapes and flavors, with almost all sweet pepper varieties being a cultivar of this species.
- C. chinense: The Capsicum chinense variety is believed to have been first domesticated in the northern parts of lower Amazonia in what’s today’s Bolivia and southern Brazil. It later found its way to the Caribbean islands and Cuba, where it earned the name habanero. A fruity flavor characterizes this species of the capsicum genus and boasts some of the hottest chili varieties.
- C. frutescens: This variety of pepper is believed to have been first domesticated in the Amazon Basin and later in the Caribbean. The ancestry of Capsicum frutescens remains largely contested, with some pepper history scholars suggesting it is a variety of capsicum chinense. In contrast, others indicate that it descends from the wild Capsicum eximium. Its fruits are characterized by lance-shaped colorful fruits that are very pungent.
- C. pubescens: Domestication of this variety dates way back to pre-Incan times. It was domesticated in the mid-elevation regions of the southern Andes mountains. Historians have found traces of this species in ceramic and textile remains of the societies that lived in this region. Its fruits are meaty, apple-shaped, and juicy, with black seeds and its leaves noticeably hairy.
- C. baccatum: This variety, also referred to as Amarillo chili, traces its origins in Bolivia, Peru, and across South America’s Andean region. This species of pepper comes in many varieties and is among the hottest chilies. Unlike other species, its fruits come in a wide variety of shapes and have a characteristic fruity or citrus flavor.
What are the oldest chili peppers?
According to archaeologists, the earliest evidence of chili domestication dates over 6,000 years ago, with the available micro-botanical evidence pointing to C. annuum as the oldest variety. Some of the oldest sites where traces of this species have been found include Guitarrero Caves in Peru and Mexico’s Ocampo caves.
There is no historical evidence to prove the period in which other varieties of the capsicum genus were domesticated. Still, scientists and historians believe that it started at the same period as the C. annuum or slightly after. There is some documented evidence pointing to early domestication of C. pubescens, with some traces of the species being found in pottery and ceramic articles dating back to over 5,000 years ago.
Proliferation of chilies across the globe
Most scientists believe that birds are primarily responsible for spreading wild chili peppers from their originating regions. According to scientists, birds have a symbiotic relationship with peppers. They benefit from nourishment from the peppers, and the peppers, in return, benefit by having their seeds spread over a wide area.
Interestingly, birds, unlike mammals, do not feel the sting of the chili spice because they lack the receptors responsible for feeling the sting. Additionally, the bird’s digestive system leaves the pepper seeds intact, making them ideal modes of pepper seed dispersion.
Even with birds being a mode of pepper seed dispersion, pepper remained unknown to the broader global population until Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World in the 1490s. Columbus was not looking for spices when he stumbled into peppers. He was on a mission to find a new trade route to Asia. After stumbling upon chilies, Columbus carried them with him back to Europe.
However, Columbus may not be credited for the proliferation of chilies to the rest of the world. Although he played a critical role in introducing chilies to Europe, Portuguese explorers may be primarily responsible for the rapid spread and adoption of chili peppers across the globe. It is also believed that Spanish merchants may also have contributed to the spread of chilies to Asia.
Countries known for their love of peppers
Some countries are recognized globally for their love of chili peppers. Top on this list are India and Mexico.
India is renowned for its love of spicy foods (and often super-spicy chilies like the infamous ghost pepper). With Asia being an ancient trade hub, chili peppers made an early entrance into the scene and were speedily adopted and incorporated into their local cuisines.
The Mexican love for hot peppers, though, is even longer in the making, and it includes some of the most beloved chilies on the market today. Jalapeños, poblanos, and serranos all originated in Mexico.
But the love for fiery spices is not limited to India and Mexico. Other countries share this love including China, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Jamaica, Peru, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Bolivia. See our article on countries with the spiciest food for more detail on the global passion for chili peppers. Or jump right into our hot pepper list to explore the Scoville scale from top to bottom.