Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


habanero-pepper

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

A Hot Time in the Old Archaeological Dig Tonight

• November 21, 2013 • 4:25 PM

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

Ancient people of Mesoamerica apparently liked a hot drink in the morning, too. A spicy hot drink, that is.

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.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.