Chilli pepper - In the Americas

On one of his travels to America around 1493, Christopher Columbus was searching for an alternative spice to the popular black pepper. He found a small fiery pod that had for centuries provided seasoning for Native Americans - the chilli pepper. It was soon to gain worldwide notoriety. Today, despite the diversity of common names, sizes, shapes and colours of the chillies familiar to us, none are that different from those raised by indigenous Indians before Europeans even set foot on America.

South American spice

Chilli peppers are now known to be one of the very first domesticated plants of Central and South America. There are several species, each from different regions in South and Central America, which were utilised by native Indians more than 7000 years ago. They were eaten as a flavouring. They may also have been used as medicines, particularly by the Mayans, to treat a host of conditions including diseases of the intestine, toothache, cough and lack of appetite and was a popular aphrodisiac. Back then, chillies were probably harvested from the wild.

Domestication

Domestication began perhaps 5000 years ago. Different groups within different regions are thought to have independently domesticated chilli plants. The process may have begun when peppers were given a privileged status as a tolerated weed. As humans began to use and select the plants for their fruits, they unconsciously or even consciously chose from plants that held fruits until ready to harvest so that they were more difficult for birds to steal. Other traits were selected. Most cultivated peppers have fruits that droop downward. This came about not only from a preference for larger fruit but also to protect from bird damage by hiding them amid the foliage.

As seeds began to be cultivated, other new characteristics began to develop. Wild chillies are susceptible to cross pollination with other plants, whereas cultivated peppers mainly pollinate themselves. This is favourable because self-fertilising plants could be grown in a small area with other distinct types without the danger of cross breeding whereby its identity would be lost.

By the time the Spanish arrived in America, native people had already developed dozens of varieties of chilli peppers - the precursors of our modern day chillies. Without the advantage of scientific insight, these early botanists named many sized, shaped, and coloured forms giving us a plethora of plant names that are only recently starting to be understood.