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Chili of Ancient Times – A Historical Look at Chili!

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A short document I wrote about the origins of Chili!

Chili of Ancient Times

By Tom Watson

“Chili”, or more accurately Chili Con Carne {literally “Chili Peppers and Meat”},

is more than a combination of local fruits and meat available to the cattle ranchers of

Texas; It is the culmination of nearly 9500 years of experience and a simple spark of

ingenuity. Before the recent history of the dish may be digested, we must first understand

how Chili Con Carne came to be invented. To do this we must look at the ingredients, the

cultures surrounding them and the final motives involved in the creation of this great


Before we can understand the ingredients we must understand the culture that put

them together. Often Chili is thought to have been created in Texas; while this is true it

cannot be over looked that the Chili Pepper was first cultivated in central Mexico by pre-

Aztec cultures. Around 8000 BC, during the Early Archaic Period, people first began to

cultivate native Chili plants and use them in their food. We can surmise who these people

were based upon the most probable origin of the first domesticated Chili peppers


The modern Common Red Chili Pepper, Capsicum annuum (Diamond), is

thought to have been domesticated from wild variants found in central Mexico.

(Pickersgill) This is based upon chromosomal comparison. Nearly every genetic aspect of

modern C. annuum is found in the wild “weedy forms” for the species found in central

Mexico. This evidence is supported by recent genetic tests performed in which tests of

native C. annuum from northwestern Mexico and central Mexico revealed that the central

Mexican plants matched our modern domesticated plants more closely (Casas).

C. annuum has been a part of human diet in the regions of central and northern

Mexico for nearly 12,000 years and may have been cultivated as early as 10,500 years

ago. (Diamond) It can only be expected that the word “Chili” comes from the Spanish

word Chile, which in-turn was derived from the Na’huatl (pronounced: “Na-Ha’Whatle)

word for the pepper. Na’huatl was the ancient language of the Aztecs, who in-turn where

the descendents of the inhabitants of central Mexico (Rountree).

The first ingredient in Chili Con Carne is of course Chili Peppers

C. annuum, “Chili”, is often thought of as a vegetable; however it is in actuality a fruit. C.

Annuum is actually part of the Nightshade family of plants, Solanaceae (“pepper”). This

fruit owes its spicy flavor and pungent aroma to a simple oily chemical produced by the

plant called capsaicin. (Blumberg) Capsaicin is noted for its ability to cause the sensation

of heat when exposed to mammalian tissue. This effect was probably developed as a

natural defense mechanism for the plant but used by humans as a flavoring agent.

Meat has been a part of the human diet for several million years and is necessarily

a part of life in most human societies. The Aztec people where no exception to this fact.

Consumption of meat was a part of the diet of most Aztecs. The Aztecs probably started

adding salt and other native spices to their food in the same manor as nearly all other

peoples of the time (Rountree).

Meat spoilage is often cited as a primary reason for adding spices to meat in warm

climates. This is due to modern misconceptions of ancient food preparation. During

recent times humans have had to contend with meat being slaughtered and then traversing

great distances before being consumed. In the ancient world of archaic period Mexico

such concepts were untested. Food would most likely be eaten within an area

geographically close to the place in which it was obtained. This may be seen in most

cultures of the time (Diamond).

Blumberg, Peter M., Szallasi, Arpad, “Vanilloid (Capsaicin) Receptors and

Mechanisms”: June 1999 Copyright © 1999 by The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Vol. 51, Issue 2, 159-212,

Casas, Alejandro; Gonzalez-Rodriguez, Antonio; Garzon-Tiznado, Jose Antonio;

Hernandez-Verdugo, Sergio; Sanchez, Carla; Sanchez-Pena, Pedro; Oyama, Ken.

“Genetic structure of wild and domesticated populations of Capsicum

annuum (Solanaceae) from northwestern Mexico analyzed by RAPDs.” May 2006: Genetic Resources & Crop Evolution. 53(3):553-562,

Diamond, Jared. “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal

domestication.” Nature: 8 August 2002:700-707. Nature International Weekly Journal of Science. Accessed 20 Apr. 2006

“pepper.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica

Premium Service. 24 Apr. 2006.


Pickersgill, Barbara, “Taxonomy and the origin and evolution of cultivated plants in the

New World.” Nature: Vol. 268, August 1977. Nature International Weekly Journal of Science. Accessed April 21th

Rountree, Dr. Helen C. Personal. 06 Apr. 2006

“Summary: Characteristics of prehistoric periods.” Mississippi Historical Society ©

2000–2006. 22 accessed: Apr. 2006

mshistory.k12.ms.us/features/ feature32/archaeology_summary.pdf