Mexican food may have changed surprisingly little over the last millennium.
Some really old spice. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
If you could travel back in time to the Mexico of a thousand years ago, the food would probably have a familiar kick to it. This according to archaeo-botanist Linda Perry of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.
She and her colleagues discovered well-preserved scraps of domesticated chili peppers in an ancient Mexican shelter cave. The peppers date back five to fifteen hundred years. Perry was struck by the variety: ten different kinds of peppers in all, including seven in a single location.
Because you're not going to be growing seven different kinds of peppers if you're not making some really interesting food.
What's more, she says the peppers appear to have been used in both fresh and dried forms—providing a broad spectrum of spices that could fuel dishes similar to today's Mexican specialties. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.
Making Sense of the Research
When you think of ancient food, you probably ... well, chances are you don't think about ancient food very much. But you probably wouldn't think it would be much like the food we eat today. This research suggests that Mexican food may be one of the world's oldest surviving cuisines, and that its basic elements may be traced back thousands of years.
The ancient peppers—122 specimens in all—were found in a cave in Oaxaca, a region that remains influential in Mexican cooking today. The caves were used for shelter and storage by the ancient Zapotec people over the course of an entire millennium. The peppers there were by no means the oldest cultivated chili peppers ever found; Perry and her colleagues have found fossilized chili starch in Ecuador that dates back over 6,000 years.
In this case, it's not the age of the peppers that matters most, but the fact that many different kinds of ancient cultivated chilis have been found in a single location. The peppers were actually discovered over forty years ago, but they were passed on to Perry only very recently. By closely examining the starch grains in the peppers, Perry was able to confirm that they were farmed, not wild, varieties, and to sort out the different varieties. She also found some whole stems, which were probably ripped from fresh peppers right in the cave, and torn-up fragments, which may have been dried, flaked peppers brought in from another location.
As Perry notes, you wouldn't bother to keep so many different kinds of peppers in one place unless you needed them—most likely, for a variety of recipes that required slightly different flavors. The fact that other Mexican food staples were also found in the cave, including corn, beans, and squash, supports the possibility that these recipes were not so different from those of today. Of course, this doesn't mean that recipes haven't changed over time. But the basic elements of this popular cuisine appear to have all been there 1,500 years ago, and chances are, they were put to similar uses.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What's significant about this finding?
- Why is it important to note that the chili peppers were cultivated (farmed)?
- How might her conclusions have differed if only one kind of chili pepper had been found in the cave?
- How much can you infer about a cuisine from its ingredients? Give reasons for your answer.
You may want to check out the July 27, 2007, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: how fetuses breathe inside the womb, rats that help out other rats, ancient chili peppers found in Mexico, why we yawn, and the surprising forms alien life might take
For other tastes of food archaeology, read the National Geographic News articles 4,000-Year-Old Noodles Found in China and Ancient Fig Find May Push Back Birth of Agriculture.
Read about a modern-day chef's experiments with ancient recipes in The Trouble with Blood, published in Archaeology, the journal of the Archaeological Institute of America.