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Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2007, 03:40 GMT
Chillies heated ancient cuisine
By Dan Collyns
BBC News, Lima

Chilli peppers
Chillies were tickling the palate thousands of years ago
Archaeologists in Ecuador have found evidence that chillies were used in cooking more than 6,000 years ago.

They say that chilli grains found in south-western Ecuador show they were cultivated for trade and cooking much earlier than previously thought.

The findings show it was people in this area who first added the spice to cooking and not those in the highlands of Peru or Mexico as first thought.

The hot new research was published in the journal Science.

These ancient remains of chilli peppers have changed the way scientists think about prehistoric Latin American agriculture and cuisine.

At around 6,000 years old, the chilli grains show that peppers were among the oldest domesticated foods in the hemisphere.

The team of scientists who made the discovery in a tropical lowland area say the spice must have been transported over the Andes to what is now Ecuador as the chillies only grew naturally to the east of the mountain range.

The farmers in that ancient village would have been among the first to domesticate the plant.

Spiced staples

The remains of the chillies were not well preserved and it was only by finding microscopic starch grains on ancient pestles and mortars and cooking pots that scientists were able to find any evidence of their use.

It is believed those early Latin Americans would have used chillies with corn and beans.

The author of the report, Linda Perry, says the findings will change perceptions about the sophistication of food on the continent, thousands of years before Christopher Columbus arrived.

He took the chilli pepper to Europe, from where it spread to the rest of the world.

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