New fossil evidence shows prehistoric people from southern Peru up to the Bahamas were cultivating varieties of chilies millennia before Columbus' arrival brought the spice to world cuisine.
The earliest traces so far are from southwestern Ecuador, where families fired up meals with homegrown peppers about 6,100 years ago.
The discovery, reported Friday in the journal Science, suggests early New World agriculture was more sophisticated than once thought.
How do you trace a pepper, which leaves no husk or other easily fossilized evidence? A dozen researchers at seven sites around Latin America kept finding microscopic starch grains on grindstones and cooking vessels and in trash heaps. Finally Perry identified these microfossils as residue from domesticated, not wild, chili species that in some spots even predated the invention of pottery.
If this is evidence of ancient New World agriculture (is it really?) then what happened?