One of the world’s most popular cuisines has just been dated back at least 1,500 years. According to a press release of a Smithsonian study, pre-Columbian people were enjoying Mexican food that is very similar to what we eat today.
Two caves were discovered in the southern region of Mexico that yielded very well preserved plant remains of at least 10 cultivated varieties of peppers (or cultivars). The study will be published the week of July 9 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “This analysis demonstrates that chilies in Mexican food have been numerous and complex for a long period of time,” said lead author Linda Perry, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in the press release. “It reveals a great antiquity for the Mexican cuisine that we’re familiar with today.”
The caves, Guilá Naquitz and Silvia’s Cave, are two dry rock shelters near Mitla in the Valley of Oaxaca, southern Mexico. The very dry, arid conditions of the caves have stopped the decay process in much vegetation that was stored there, yielding wonderful specimens to study. In the past, Guilá Naquitz has offered up beans, corn, squash, avocados, and chili peppers, all of which are key ingredients in Mexican cuisine.
The area being concentrated on now is known as “Zone A” and “Super A.” These areas represent the time period circa A.D. 500-1500. Guilá Naquitz had at least seven cultivars of ancient chili peppers and Silvia’s Cave had at least three. Perry indicated that some looked like Tabasco peppers and another looked like a cayenne pepper, but genetic testing would have to be done before they can say how closely related they are to the modern varieties.
“What was interesting to me was that we were able to determine that they were using the peppers both dried and fresh,” Perry said. (Chilies broken while fresh had a recognizable breakage pattern.) “It shows us that ancient Mexican food was very much like today. They would have used fresh peppers in salsas or in immediate preparation, and they would have used the dried peppers to toss into stews or to grind up into sauces like moles.”
During the time period of A.D. 500-1500 the caves were used as camps and storage facilities for farmers in the Mitla area. They cultivated many fields below the two caves and utilized various areas such as river bottoms, piedmonts, and mountains. This allowed for variety in their diets and reduced the chances of not having enough food due to a crop failure in one area or the other.
“In the cave deposits, we can see excellent documentation for the sophistication of the agriculture and the cuisine at this point in time,” Perry said. “You don’t grow seven different kinds of chilies unless you’re cooking some pretty interesting food.”
Smithsonian News Release. URL: (http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/nmah_Ancient-Americans-liked-it-hot.htm)