Podcast S5 E4 | 34 min

People of the Peppers

18 Apr 2023
Meet Katherine Chiou, an archaeologist who conducts research in Mexico and Peru to search for clues about humanity’s spicy romance with hot chili peppers.

The world over people live with plants. Whether it’s in apartment bedrooms or backyards, it’s hard to find a human who doesn’t have some relationship with a plant. Enter paleoethnobotany, a field of archeology that examines plant remains to understand the historic alliance between humans and their vegetation. In this episode, host Eshe Lewis interviews archaeologist Katie Chiou to explore the spiciest human-plant affair: chili peppers.

Katherine L. Chiou is an anthropological archaeologist and paleoethnobotanist whose research interests include foodways in the past and present, Andean archaeology, household archaeology, plant domestication, food sovereignty, agrobiodiversity, sustainability, GIS and data visualization, and responsible conduct of research. Katherine received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently an assistant professor in anthropology at the University of Alabama, where she oversees the Ancient People and Plants Laboratory. She is currently working on a project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to study and promote ethical cultures in the field of archaeology. Her writing and podcasting as a SAPIENS fellow will revolve around the subject of food, particularly the enigmatic relationship between people and chiles, past and present.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffee was the editor for this piece, with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel was the audio editor and sound designer. The executive producers were Cat Jaffee and Chip Colwell.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Season sponsor:

  • This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is part of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship funded with the support of a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
Read a transcript of this episode .

People of the Peppers

Eshe Lewis: I like a little spice in my food.

My family is from Trinidad, and I grew up with a grandmother who made her own pepper sauce. I mean, I never ate it because it was really hot. But my favorite trendy condiment is a spicy, sour, green mango sauce that adds just the right kick to my mom’s curry.

Since 2009, I’ve lived and worked in Peru, and I’ve carried out research on Afro-Peruvian communities and Afro-descendant women’s experiences with intimate partner violence. I’ve also eaten. A lot. In Latin America, Peru is one of the gastronomic heavy hitters. It’s a place where the chili pepper, or aji, as Peruvians call it, reigns supreme.

So one day in Lima, years ago, I was talking to my partner while he was making dinner, and I don’t remember what I was talking about, but I do remember that as soon as I walked into the kitchen, my nose started to burn. I was coughing and coughing, and every time I tried to inhale, it felt like there were cuts in my throat, which just made me cough even more. And I remember frantically trying to figure out what was trying to kill me. But all I could see was my partner standing over a boiling pot of water.

So he looks up, and he urges me out of the kitchen and gets me some water. And I realize he’s smiling. So I ask what he’s so happy about, and he says, “Coughing’s good. It means the aji is strong.” He was rehydrating dried chili peppers to make sauce.

This has happened to me and to others time and time again over the years in my home and in the kitchens of friends and family. But in this place where people have an intimate and long-standing relationship with chiles, it’s normal. Everyone coughs, then smiles, and then waits for the food.

My name is Eshe Lewis. This is SAPIENS.

And today, I’m interviewing anthropologist and SAPIENS fellow Katie Chiou, who studies the relationship between human beings and the chili pepper. Katie’s research has taken her to Mexico and Peru, looking for clues as to just how far back our romance with hot chiles goes.

What makes us human?

Sara Hoffman: It’s a wild ride. Brace yourself.

Speaker 3: Imagine the future.

Miss Jeri Hutton Green: I will not be quiet.

Koffi Nomedji: Have to start from scratch.

Julio Tiwiram: Una revolución aquí en la mente.

Emily Willis: It gives me goosebumps.

Eshe: What makes us human?

Group: Let’s find out.

Eshe: SAPIENS, a Podcast for Everything Human. Katie, hi.

Katie Chiou: Hi, Eshe.

Eshe: Before you started researching chiles, what was your relationship like with spicy food?

Katie: Funny enough. I mean, I grew up in a home that didn’t really eat spicy food. Just for some added background, my family is originally from Taiwan. I grew up mainly in the great state of New Jersey. My mom actually was Daoist and adhered to certain Daoist principles, though we ate mostly vegetarian. We didn’t even eat things like garlic or onion because those plants are particularly pungent, and so pungent flavors are thought to kind of evoke meat.

And so as a result, we didn’t really have anything that resembled spice. It was pretty bland for the most part. And even though Taiwanese cuisine is very famous nowadays, it’s known as, you know, one of those really interesting food cultures. It’s known for night markets and beef noodle soup and soup dumpling.

But for the most part, chili peppers aren’t really an ingredient that’s heavily featured in the cuisine there. Lots of salt, sugar, soy, sometimes vinegar, but not really spiciness. So it wasn’t until I went off to college in New York City where I began to kind of experiment with more cuisines—eating Indian food, Korean food, exploring various African cuisines, Latin American cuisines—that I was really introduced to this colorful world of chiles.

Eshe: So what is it that got you on the chili path as an academic? You spent a lot of time researching this stuff, so I’d love to hear how you began.

Katie: I’m a paleoethnobotanist. That’s a mouthful, I know. Basically it means that I’m an archaeologist who specializes in studying the long-term relationship between plants and humans. So I’m essentially an archaeologist who looks at archaeological plant remains.

I’m also mostly an Indianist, so I study … Most of my work has taken place in coastal Peru as well as elsewhere. And so I remember when I was the graduate student at UC Berkeley, my adviser came in one day to our lab and basically was like, “Someone sent me hundreds of chili pepper seeds, and they have no idea what to do about it.” It was coming from the site of Huaca Prieta, which is a well-known archaeological site from the pre-ceramic periods. This basically means it’s from the time before ceramic technology was invented.

And it has a lot of evidence of early experimentation with domestication and incipient agriculture. So, people were basically playing around with plants becoming more sedentary. And essentially, it’s an important site for those interested in the development of complex societies in the Americas.

So we basically got all of these seeds. There was no real protocol for how to study them. I remember, you know, rifling through the literature and trying to see if there was a way to kind of identify different types, but that didn’t really exist yet. So it fell upon us to kind of figure out a creative solution to identify these to a more specific level.

Long story short, basically, we came up with a protocol for identifying these things down to a species level, right? So essentially, we were able to get a sense of, you know, if these seeds were domesticated, what particular species can we associate with them, and what story can that tell us? You know, the fact that there’s species that were domesticated in various parts of the Americas appearing at the site, you know, what does that say about the relationship between the site as well as other regions around the Andes and beyond.

Eshe: So, Katie, I’m recording right now in Lima, and I’m wondering why you came to Peru. What is so special about the relationship between people and chiles here?

Katie: So, you know, when I started this project, I already was working in Peru. But I think, you know, when the opportunity was presented to me, I jumped on it because I just know, you know, culturally speaking, chiles are such an integral part of Andean cuisine, not only today in the modern present but also in the past. I mean, we find depictions of chili peppers everywhere for the Nazca culture. For example, the famous people who, you know, built those geoglyphs in the desert. They, I think, depicted the chili pepper a lot. I think it’s the third most plant that’s depicted on their ceramics. We have depictions of a chili pepper on the Tello Obelisk from the site of Chavín de Huantár. There’s this god-like creature who’s holding chili peppers in one of his hands.

Eshe: Oh, cool.

Katie: So, you know, just speaking to people, too, living in Peru and experiencing the cuisine, you understand that this is not just, you know, just some random ingredient. It’s something that I think is part and parcel of identity.

Eshe: Mm-hmm.

Katie: There is a bunch of different varieties that are ones that are more popular in certain regions. And I think we see that archaeologically. We see this development of localized tastes and preferences for certain chiles, and I feel like it might be indicative of people developing a very special relationship with certain kinds of chiles.

Eshe: Do you remember an experience in particular that maybe you go back to when you think about chiles in your life, maybe as a researcher, or as you were starting to, you know, become more aware of the power of the chili pepper?

Katie: Yeah, I remember distinctly the first time I went to Peru. And, of course, when everybody thinks of Peruvian cuisine, you think of ceviche …

Eshe: Right.

Katie: The sort of fish that is raw and then kind of cured in salt and acid—lime, for example—and it usually is accompanied with aji limo, for example.

Eshe: Yep.

Katie: And I remember eating it in a restaurant and just being completely blown away by the flavor. It was, again, the acidity mixed with the heat and the salt. And I just recall, you know, how thrilled I was at the fact that, you know, this combination of flavors were so amazing. And I remember the whole time when I ordered it, the waiter kept asking if I was OK with that. He kept saying, you know, that, you know, pica mucho. It’s very, very spicy. And remember just saying like, “No, I can totally handle this. Just give it to me.” And, yeah, it was definitely on the hot side, but definitely I think very enjoyable.

Eshe: Hot but flavorful. I think that’s the way I would describe it.

Katie: Yeah.

Eshe: Do you have a favorite chili pepper from Peru or from a region of Peru?

Katie: Yeah, I do. I do. I love the aji amarillo.

Eshe: Yes.

Katie: Which is the yellow chili pepper. It’s just such a friendly color. And I feel like, you know, it’s something that we don’t really find in North America for a variety of reasons. But I think whenever I think of, you know, Peruvian cuisine, obviously there’s a lot of different chiles. But I always think of the aji amarillo, and it’s also part of some of the dishes that I really like. So, you know, in terms of my own personal preference, I’m definitely on Team Yellow Pepper.

Eshe: Mm-hmm. Yeah, they’re very sunny. I always love going to the market where you can see there’s usually a woman who has a whole bunch of different, different color bowls, liquids with different … in different bowls and you tell her what you want to make, and she kind of scoops up a little here and a little there, and there you go. You’ve got your aji for whatever you’re going to make.

Katie: Yeah. It’s like it’s like a customized hot sauce.

Eshe: Yeah. It’s so bright and colorful, and she always gives you just the right amount.

Well, you’ve also done research on Mexican chiles, and I would love to know how old that relationship is. What is … What’s been the significance of the chili in Mexico?

Katie: So Mexico is just a fabulous place to study chili peppers. As you well know, I mean, Mexican cuisine is almost synonymous with chili. You know, chili just for added context. It’s actually a Nahuatl word. And when we say “pepper,” that’s really a product of Christopher Columbus, a sort of, I guess, you know, he is responsible for all the confusion because pepper, black pepper, is actually not related to chiles.

But when he came here, and he saw that people were eating it pretty much with every dish, according to his account, he likened it to the pungency of black pepper. And as a result, we call it chili pepper.

So, yeah, Mexico is definitely a hot spot. Both in terms of being an important area for the domestication of chili of a particular species known as Capsicum annuum. Capsicum annuum is probably the most important commercial species of chili pepper. So all the chili peppers that you see in the supermarket today, or for the most part, they are Capsicum annuum. And that includes varieties like jalapeños, serranos … bird’s eye chili that’s very common in Thai cuisine, the chili that’s also common in Sichuan cuisine … paprika, poblano, hatch chiles, the sweet varieties like bell pepper. All of those are one single species, which is actually pretty remarkable when you think about just how different they look and how different they taste, and how some of them are incredibly hot and some of them aren’t hot at all. And so that really is the product of this long-term experimentation that people have engaged in with chili peppers for up to what we think is maybe 10,000 years.

Eshe: Wow. Can you tell me a bit about Indigenous people and the relationship they have with chiles?

Katie: Yes, so Indigenous people today are really responsible for maintaining a lot of that agro-biodiversity, which people are talking about in terms of, you know, the fact that we’re losing varieties at an alarming scale due to things like large-scale agriculture, increasing reliance on mono cropping. And so the practices that Indigenous peoples in Mexico rely on today basically involve a lot of continual gene flow between different kinds of species. So essentially, they are still interbreeding species with each other. They are introducing genes from wild populations continuously. And so they’re also maintaining these lines by continuing to pass them down through the generations or by sharing them with each other, right?

So this is something that is deeply meaningful, and it’s something that a good colleague of mine, Araceli Aguilar Melendez, who’s an ethnobotanist at the Universidad Veracruzana in Mexico, has been studying. She’s an amazing scholar. She’s done a lot of work visiting different Indigenous groups throughout Mexico, recording the kinds of chiles they are using, how they’re using them, how they’re cultivating them, what kind of environmental conditions are associated with them … and collecting specimens, both in terms of fruits and seeds.

So she’s been really instrumental in terms of helping out with our sort of newer questions about the context and the timing of domestication in Mexico itself.

Araceli Aguilar Melendez: We did a little ritual two weeks ago because I just moved into my new home. And this is a ritual that is made in the western region, and we call it to give food to the house. So we make some tamales with chili peppers and put them on a hole that we make [on] our land outside the house. And also we burn some chiles and copal to clean the environment, the house, from bad energies, you know?

So, yeah, we did it. We invite a curandero from the western region to do the ritual, and it was really nice. And we just did it because that’s the way that my family used to do it a long time ago in our hometown. We keep some traditions. We keep some rituals because, somehow, [they] connect us with our past, with our culture, with our land.

Eshe: So this discussion about Indigenous people and chiles is making me think about the domestication process. How are we so sure that chiles were first domesticated in Mexico? Why not India or, I don’t know, somewhere else in North America?

Katie: So that’s actually a really great question, Eshe. And the short answer is that, you know, we’re not sure that chiles were first domesticated in Mexico. A lot of what we know about timing is based off archaeological evidence. So, you know, archaeological evidence is rather patchy. It’s dependent on various preservation conditions. And due to the fact that some areas are not conducive towards the preservation of organic remains—like think of places that are incredibly hot and humid where we know chili peppers grow, for example—we can’t be 100 percent certain that chiles weren’t there early on.

Based on what we know right now, the wild progenitors, so those basically are the sort of ancestors, I guess, to domesticated plants. They exist only in the neotropics. So basically, we have what we think are the progenitors or the five domesticated species of chili peppers throughout what today is Latin America. So the Capsicum annuum, which I mentioned before, is probably from Mexico. We have other ones that come from we think is the Amazon, some possibly from the Caribbean, some from the Andean Highlands.

And so our understanding is basically based on the extent to which wild populations today grow throughout the Americas. So we know that it’s probably unlikely that North America is, you know, a potential candidate for the area of the first domestication because we don’t have those wild populations there today. And countries like India, even though today it’s something that I would argue is incredibly important for chili pepper culture, we don’t have chili peppers in what we consider the Old World until after the opening of the Colombian exchange. So, after Columbus arrives in the Americas, and we begin to see trade back and forth between the Old World and the New World.

Eshe: What made chili so appealing to ancient people?

Katie: You know, you could ask what makes chiles so appealing to people today.

Eshe: Sure.

Katie: The funny thing is, I mean, chiles are designed to hurt you. Something that I’ve always found incredibly fascinating. We know that when chiles are really, really hot, they do things like irritate your mucus linings, right? They make your heart race. You’ll start sweating. Your snot will start running down your face. You know, nobody looks particularly attractive, I think, when eating a really hot pepper. And yet that pain is coupled with pleasure, which I always found to be incredibly, I think, poetic in a way.

So chili peppers produce a molecule known as capsaicin. Capsaicin basically causes your body to think that it’s on fire, right? It’s essentially burning. And that causes that sensation that you feel. And that burning then translates into the dumping of endorphins.

So people often talk about like eating really hot peppers, you know, feeling awful, you know, throughout various places. I mean, it might upset your stomach. It might make your head feel like it’s on fire. But afterward, they actually oftentimes talk about a high, right? Almost like it’s a drug in some way, and it’s that high, I think, that keeps people going after that plant. And moreover, I mean, chili peppers are just darn tasty sometimes, right? They’re fruity. You know, you can smoke them and dry them and, you know, make a bunch of really wonderful dishes like mole. I mean, mole is just a beautiful … just so flavorful. It’s just so variable and incredibly plastic. I think it really is something that responds to what people want. And I think that’s why you see so many different kinds of crazy-looking varieties in the supermarket.

Araceli: Chili is such a plastic plant and fruit. In new lands, became less spicy, like in Europe. In other places, became really spicy, like India or some other Asian places. So, like, few plants are so plastic.

Katie: So not only are chili peppers really great for flavoring food, they’re also used as medicine. So, for example, like Icy Hot, right? That’s something that utilizes the molecule capsaicin. And so chili peppers are in a way, an analgesic. So they can help temporarily alleviate pain. Again, funny because it’s that pain/pleasure sensation.

They’re also known to help with stomach issues. So, for example, in Peru, I remember when asking people what chiles could be used for, oftentimes, they would say like, “Oh, it could be used to help cure the dolor de estómago,” which is basically a stomachache.

Eshe: I’m wondering what sets chili apart from other crops. I mean, ancient people in this part of the world, and by this part of the world, I mean the Americas, are famous for domesticating other crops as well, right, namely, corn and potatoes. So what makes chiles different in this context?

Katie: So I think we can think of this question functionally. And actually, you bring up a really interesting point because we know there’s been so much research done on these economically really important plants, right? You mentioned maize or corn, potatoes. We can think of beans, wheat, rice, barley from the Old World. These are all incredibly crucial plants, I think, for helping sustain and grow human populations. And a lot of the models that we have for, you know, why people engaged with plants and decided to domesticate them and how that happened and what that looks like are based on plants like these.

And I would argue that, you know, they’re all to a certain extent similar in terms of the fact that they are staple crops. So they tend to be rather starchy. They produce a lot of food in terms of yield. They provide a lot of the caloric needs of humans. But chili peppers don’t do that, right? Chili peppers, I mean, they’re very low calorie. If you’re on a diet, go ahead. You can go to town, eat as many as you want. They’re not going to provide a lot for you in terms of energy. They’re high in vitamin C, which is great. But other than that, I mean, there’s not a lot that they provide nutritionally. And so the interesting thing to think about is, you know, why did people decide to engage with this plant?

You know, and again, I think flavor plays a big role. And we see that in, you know, countries around the world. So one of the fascinating things, I think, about chiles is, you know, why certain groups have adopted them, while others have rejected them. But we can all think of cuisines that are heavily chili-reliant and others that, you know, are a little bit less spicy.

Araceli: I grew up in a tropical place. So I ate a lot of seafood, chili peppers, many, many dishes because in Mexico we love to eat. So the food has always been in my life … present in my life.

Let me give you some context in this regard. Each family in Mexico has their own rules regarding eating chili peppers or regarding what time is the best time to introduce chiles to the kids. I was having conflicting signals or, you know, information as I was growing up because within my nuclear family—my parents and my brother and sister—we were told, “Don’t eat chiles. Too spicy for you as a kid.”

On the other hand, I was spending a lot of time in the house of my aunt, the sister of my father, and she will say, “You have to eat any type of food.” And she will always put a little bit of chili pepper on each dish. If it was a soup, she will put the fresh chili just to give it, you know, this kind of a minty, spicy flavor. Or if it was the party, we will eat the mole dish, you know? So the chiles were blended, and you don’t see the chiles. You just try the food, and you are like, “Ouch. Oh, my God, It’s a little bit spicy.” And everybody is like, “Yeah, yeah, but you eat it.”

Eshe: So we’ve talked about chiles’ relationships in Peru and Mexico. What about the United States? I mean, there seems to be a real obsession with painfully hot food rather than flavor or medicinal value. So, how have chiles evolved to be hotter for the fun of it?

Katie: I mean, there’s so much media coverage right now of really hot chiles. We see documentaries covering chili-eating competitions. We see YouTube channels like Hot Ones, where celebrities are being interviewed as they consume hotter and hotter chili pepper sauces until the last one, the last dab.

Speaker 8: This is the last dab.

Speaker 9: I don’t like this. This is different.

Speaker 8: The last dab because we’ve put a little extra …

Speaker 9: What …

Speaker 8: … on the last one.

Speaker 9: … are you talking about?

Speaker 10: I don’t want to do the dab.

Speaker 8: You don’t have to do the dab.

Speaker 10: No, I should.

Katie: There are very active communities of people known as chili heads that, you know, will get together online to talk about growing different kinds of cultivars, trading seeds, talking about different conditions for growing, problem solving. And so I would say that, you know, maybe the U.S. is becoming a really chili-dominant culture. So I would argue that, yeah, spiciness is definitely something that’s a focus right now. But I think people are also beginning to think of chiles in very different ways.

Eshe: So I guess moving a little farther down that road. What have you learned so far about how we domesticate plants?

Katie: I have learned a lot, and I came in knowing, I thought, quite a bit, and I’m walking away or continuing on, still being somewhat confused about it but in a very interesting way, I think. Domestication, I think, is a very complicated process, and we tend to think of it linearly, right? We think that we go from wild directly to domesticated, and all of a sudden, humans are reliant on the plant, and the plant is reliant on humans. They are changed fundamentally, socially, culturally, biologically.

But I think when you’re looking at the actual evidence, when you’re studying these archaeological specimens over the course of over 10,000 years, you see that it’s much more complicated. The picture is very muddy. In Mexico, for example, we see people continuing to experiment and introduce genes from wild species throughout, you know, even late into times like the Maya period, for example, which archaeologically speaking is relatively recent.

And I think, to a certain extent, that makes the story even more interesting. It kind of brings into question what domestication is. At what point do we stop domesticating? I would argue that, you know, it’s a continual process in terms of this engagement between plants, between humans. We’re continually doing things through various means, through artificial selection. Nowadays there’s, you know, gene modification as well. And so it’s been interesting to track that through a plant that does not really fit the mold in terms of the way in which we understand domestication, particularly based on staple crops like corn, like rice, like wheat.

So one of the also other interesting things that we’ve uncovered by doing this work is trying to upend existing narratives that we have about chili pepper domestication. So a lot of our understanding of the timing of chili pepper domestication is based on where we find actual physical evidence for them, archaeologically speaking. And because we have sites, for example, dry caves in the Tehuacán Valley in Mexico that have excellent preservation, I mean, you’ll find plant remains that look like they were deposited yesterday.

Our data is heavily skewed, right? And so we place a lot of importance on sites like those as opposed to sites that basically have very little botanical evidence. And the research we’ve done in Mexico has shown that, you know, it’s not actually likely that those areas were the areas of initial engagement between chiles and humans. And that we really have to begin to look at places like the Yucatan Peninsula, the historical homeland of the Maya, for evidence of chiles because our environmental models, our archaeological data, are suggesting that’s where it’s likely that people started encountering wild chili peppers early on.

Eshe: So Katie, I am wondering how all of this fabulous work you’ve done has changed the way you eat or cook at home?

Katie: Oh, it has changed everything. I can’t even tell you, Eshe. You know, one of the funny things about accidently becoming like the “chili pepper archaeologist” is that people start sending you a lot of stuff, you know, so they have this, like, fabulous collection of, like, paste and sauces and, you know, oftentimes get sent different peppers, like actual fresh ones. I will try to cook them. Usually, I’m most interested in the seeds which I pull out, but I will cook the rest of the fleshy bit. And it’s made it really fun to experiment with different kinds of peppers. I have to admit, I’m not the best at coping with pungency. I don’t react relatively well, but I still give it the old college try. And so I’m definitely adventurous in that respect and hoping at some point that my body does get accustomed to it.

Eshe: I’m sure everyone appreciates your effort.

Katie: Thank you.

Eshe: Katie Chiou, thank you so much.

Katie: Thank you, Eshe.

Eshe: This episode was produced by Katherine Chiou, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama. Thanks to Araceli Aguilar Melendez, a researcher at the Center for Tropical Research at La Universidad Veracruzana in Veracruz, Mexico. Katie would also like to thank her fellow fellows Anya Gruber and Smiti Nathan for their feedback and support.

SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Ann Marie Awad was the editor of this piece with help from producer Cat Jaffe. Seth Samuel is our audio editor and sound designer. Our executive producers are Cat Jaffe and Chip Colwell.

This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is the end product of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Christine Weeber, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes, on our website, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. I’m Eshe Lewis. ¡Hasta luego!


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