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-The Natural History of Chile Peppers
-People of the Sky: Birds in Chumash Culture
-The Swordfish in Chumash Prehistory
 

  The Natural History of Chile Peppers
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Jan Timbrook
Curator of Ethnography, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Most cultivated peppers – mild bells to hot jalapeños – are the fruits from different varieties of one plant species, Capsicum annuum. Closely related are Capsicum frutescens, from which Tabasco sauce is made, and C. chinense, the source of the scorchingly hot habanero or Scotch bonnet chile. Two other South American domesticated species are seldom seen in this country. In all, there are some 27 species of Capsicum, about half of which have been used by humans. All Capsicum species are members of the nightshade family, as are tobacco, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant.

Chile peppers are completely unrelated to black pepper, the small dried fruits of a vine called Piper nigrum that is native to the Asian tropics. Using the term ‘pepper’ for these pungent, fleshy fruits has been a source of confusion for over 500 years. They might more properly be called chiles, from the Aztec name for the pungent varieties, or capsicum, as the British refer to the mild forms.

Whatever you call them, all these “peppers” originated in the New World. Since ancient times, chiles have been essential elements of both food and medicine among indigenous peoples from the American Southwest to South America. Although they first evolved south of Amazonia, chile seeds have been found in cultural deposits more than 9000 years old in the Tehuacan Valley, Mexico.

Columbus brought seeds from the Caribbean islands to Western Europe, where for centuries peppers were grown primarily as ornamental plants. But people elsewhere were quickly captivated by Capsicum. In nearly all other parts of the world, as soon as chiles became known they were immediately adopted to enhance, and even transform, local cuisines. Indian curry, Thai peanut sauce, Chinese hot and sour soup, Hungarian goulash, Italian pepperoni, Cajun jambalaya – all impossible without chiles.

Indigenous Uses
Conquistadors reported that the Aztecs and Mayas ate chile with nearly everything. Nutritious atole – corn gruel – with chile was thought to cure colds, strengthen the body, and relieve depression. Fasting for religious or health reasons entailed abstaining from chile and salt. Chile smoke was used as a fumigant, and misbehaving children were punished with it. Among the Tarahumara, chiles were used to prevent witchcraft and illness. A person who did not eat chile was immediately suspected of being a sorcerer.

In prehispanic times, chiles were not cultivated north of Mexico, but many native peoples from southern Arizona to the Big Bend of Texas used the tiny, fiery wild chiles, or chiltepin. Chiles came late to the Chumash in our region, brought by settlers from Mexico and presumably incorporated into the changing Chumash diet in mission times. They were also used medicinally. One seriously ill patient was given a concentrated extract of boiled chiles to drink, which induced profuse sweating. Then he had to drink a bucketful of seawater, a powerful purgative, after which he felt much better and recovered nicely.

How & Why Chiles Went Around the World
Wild chiles like the chiltepin (or chile piquin) are dispersed by birds. Humans helped to spread these plants from their South American homes into Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Chile peppers joined corn, beans, and squash to form the “Big Four” staple crops in Mesoamerica. Native Americans and, later, people around the world, developed a great number of varieties from the original three principal species. Now many cultivated peppers, including bells and jalapeños, require human involvement for propagation.

Columbus actually undertook his voyage with the goal of finding a shortcut to the “Spice Islands” of Indonesia, source of spices like nutmeg, mace and cloves that had been prized throughout Europe for centuries. They helped to mask ‘off’ flavors of food in a time before refrigeration and were also a status symbol: highly spiced foods were a prerogative of the very rich because exotic spices were so expensive and hard to obtain. It was the Portuguese who introduced chiles through their trading activities to Africa, India, and much of Asia.

Putting out the Fire
Chiles are well named -- Capsicum comes from the Greek kapos, “to bite.” The pungent heat is concentrated in the inner membranes, or placenta, not in the seeds or flesh. The heat comes from a group of alkaloid chemicals called capsaicinoids, principally capsaicin (C18H27NO3) and dihydrocapsaicin. Some chiles are so hot they can actually blister the skin, so it’s important to wear gloves when handling them, and be VERY careful to keep the juice out of your eyes.

These oily compounds are very soluble in fat and alcohol, but hardly at all in water. So to put the fire out, it may work better to take a swig of beer than a gulp of water—but milk or yogurt are far superior heat quenchers. That’s because certain protein compounds in milk literally work like detergent to strip the capsaicin from its receptor binding sites.

How hot is HOT?
Chiles evolved their hot taste as protection from mammalian predators whose digestive tract would destroy the seeds. Their flavor is affected by the genetic ancestry of each plant and by the environmental conditions under which it is grown. The most precise way of measuring a chile’s “heat,” or pungency, uses High Performance Liquid Chromatography. A less formal test involves diluting a sample until the heat can no longer be tasted. The results are popularly expressed as Scoville Heat Units. This comparative list is for fresh chiles – dried ones can be much hotter.

 Bell Pepper 0
 Anaheim 500-1000
 Pasilla 1000-1500
 Jalapeño 2500-5000
 Serrano 5000-15,000
 Yellow Wax 5000-15,000
 Cayenne 30,000-50,000
 Chile Pequin 30,000-50,000
 Chipotle (dried) 50,000-100,000
 Habanero 100,000-300,000

Medical Applications
Red peppers provide many therapeutic benefits when eaten. They are rich in vitamins A and C, contain carotene, an antioxidant, and have been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. Cultures where people eat large amounts of cayenne have much lower rates of cardiovascular disease.

Capsaicin, the compound that makes red pepper “hot,” is the pharmacologically active component. It helps people’s bodies adapt to hot climates by stimulating the cooling center of the hypothalamus to lower body temperature. The sweating they induce also provides evaporative cooling. Chiles stimulate the flow of saliva and gastric juices that aid in digestion.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved capsaicin for relieving pain of shingles (Herpes zoster). Clinical studies have also found it an effective pain reliever for diabetic nerve degeneration, cluster headaches, mastectomy, chemotherapy or radiation, and arthritis. Capsaicin ointments are available over the counter for relief of sore muscles and arthritis pain.

 

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