The History of Chilli Peppers

Chilli Harvest - 13th October 2022
Nowadays, chilli peppers are growing in popularity as more and more people discover their amazing qualities, but where exactly do they originate from? On this page, we'll take a brief look at the origins and history of chillies and how they spread into other parts of the world. We'll also take a look at evidence which suggests they already had a presence in the Old World prior to the Columbus voyages.

Chilli peppers, the piquant fruits of the Capsicum genus, are used in many cuisines throughout the world, and the cuisines of countries such as India, China, Thailand and Mexico are often synonymous with them. However, chillies didn't originate in Africa, Asia, Europe or Oceania, but in the tropical regions of the Americas. Experts believe that some Capsicum species likely originated in Mexico, but the general consensus is that the place of origin for the original ancestors is the Amazon Basin in South America, which is mostly located in the countries of Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela.

This region of the world is mostly covered with dense tropical forests and is home to many wild Capsicum species. From there, they spread outwards and became established in other parts of the Americas long ago. Frugivorous birds are the primary dispersal vectors of wild chilli seeds. Unlike mammals, birds are impervious to the effects of capsaicin, the chemical in chillies which makes them hot, and the small, ripe, brightly coloured fruits are very attractive to them and fit into their beaks very easily. A trait of all wild Capsicum species is that when fully ripe the fruit falls away from the calyx very easily (deciduous), and this makes them a quick and safe meal for birds. Once inside the bird's stomach, the flesh of the fruit is then digested and the seeds are exposed to enzymes, which aids with the germination process. The seeds are then carried far and wide before eventually being expelled from the bird's body wrapped in faeces — one of nature's perfect fertilisers.

Yucatán Peninsula - September 2004

Some Capsicum species, such as Capsicum chinense, may have been spread from their place of origin in the Amazon Basin to other parts of the tropical Americas by migrating tribes, such as the Carib people from South America, who migrated north and eventually drove out the Taíno people from the Lesser Antilles. When the Caribs migrated north in their canoes from the Orinoco River they took with them the things of value, such as hunting weapons and seeds for familiar food stuff that they could later plant once settled. If they did take chilli seeds with them it's likely they would have been from wild varieties, which are not like the domesticated forms we know today. Wild chillies are much smaller than their domesticated counterparts, and are small, upright growing red, orange or yellow coloured berries, which can either be spherical, ovoid or elongated in shape.

Cumari Pollux (Capsicum praetermissum)
Cumari Pollux (Capsicum praetermissum)

However, a team of scientists who studied starch grains found on pottery shards collected from the sites of Loma Alta and Real Alto in Southwestern Ecuador were able to trace the domestication of chilli peppers back to at least 6,100 years ago. Given their understanding that no chilli peppers were ever domesticated in Ecuador, the scientists who made the startling discovery believe that they must have been domesticated elsewhere (possibly the Amazon region to the east) at an earlier date and then moved into the area either through trade or by tribal migration.

Cap 500 (Capsicum eximium)
Cap 500 (Capsicum eximium)

By the time Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) and his men had arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, chilli peppers were already very well established throughout the tropical regions of the Americas, and had been so for many thousands of years. Archaeological remains recovered from the Ocampo Caves in Tamaulipas, Northeastern Mexico, and the Coxcatlán Cave in the Tehuacán Valley, Eastern-Central Mexico, suggests that early Mexican tribes may have been harvesting and consuming chilli peppers as far back as 9,000 years ago, and cultivation and domestication of Capsicum annuum fruits began in the region around 6,000 years ago.

The Caribbean has the perfect climate for growing most Capsicum species, and some bird species migrate north from South America and the Caribbean to what is now the United States. Therefore, it's entirely possible that migrating birds may have spread chilli seeds from South America to the Caribbean and beyond. However, we also need to take into consideration that the Taíno are another group of people whose ancestors migrated from the South American mainland to the Caribbean around 2,500 BC. Therefore, it's also a possibility that they too could have taken fruits and seeds of wild chillies with them when they did so.

The Caribs, who were allegedly cannibalistic and war-like, were said to have settled in the Caribbean at a much later point in history, around 1200 AD, almost three centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and his men in 1492. The Taíno and the Caribs were historic enemies, and when the Caribs migrated to the Caribbean from northeastern South America they drove out the Taíno people from the Lesser Antilles. The Caribs are said to have been very fierce warriors who frequently attacked the Taíno. They were one of the dominant Native American groups in the Caribbean when Christopher Columbus first arrived, and the Caribbean is named after them.

The History of Chilli Peppers - Art

Christopher Columbus Discovers the New World

Spices have played an important role in shaping world history. Used for culinary, medicinal and religious purposes, they've been responsible for establishing wealthy empires and responsible for the discovery of new continents. Europeans had been trading luxury goods, such as silk, dyes, oils, leather, precious stones, gold and spices, with Asia for centuries. When Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) conquered Egypt in 332 BC he founded the port city of Alexandria on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, which became a major trading centre for spices coming from Asia into Europe.

The spice trade continued throughout the Roman era, where goods were traded from Alexandria and Constantinople (the capital of the Byzantine Empire), and then on into the Middle Ages, where Venice and Genoa held the monopoly on the spice trade between Europe and Asia from the 11th to the 15th century. Spices made their way into the Mediterranean world either by overland routes via camel caravans from the East, or by direct maritime routes via the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Nile River.

Spices, such as clove, star anise, cassia, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, turmeric and black pepper, were everyday commodities for wealthy Romans. The maritime republics of Venice and Genoa had even built up their wealthy empires by specialising in the trade of exotic spices and other luxury goods. However, spices weren't for the everyday people because they were much too expensive. They were seen as a status symbol and a luxury that only the wealthy could afford to indulge in. Spices were so valuable back then that they could even be used in place of money. Black pepper could be used to buy livestock and pay debts and taxes. Nowadays, the phrase 'peppercorn rent' refers to a small sum of money, but back then it certainly wasn't the case.

At its source in Southern India, pepper was inexpensive and plentiful. However, just like the rest of the spices, once it had passed through the hands of Afghan, Persian, Arab, Indian, Venetian and Genoese middlemen it had amassed considerable value. For obvious reasons, the source of origin for the spices was a very closely guarded secret. Arabian traders even went to the great trouble of making up fanciful stories to protect the origins of the spices. They claimed that black pepper came from the groves of trees in India that were heavily guarded by fiercely venomous serpents. In order to collect the peppercorns they had to burn the trees to drive the snakes away, and in the process of doing so it turned the fruit from white to black.

They also claimed that cinnamon came from the nests of the Cinnamologus bird, a large bird species from Arabia that collected cinnamon sticks from an unknown land to build its nests. In order to collect the cinnamon they had to cut oxen and other beasts of burden into pieces and lay them near the nests. The greedy Cinnamologus birds then flew down and carried chunks of meat back to their nests, and in doing so the excess weight from the carcasses made the nests fall from the cliffs, leaving the Arabians free to collect the fallen cinnamon sticks.

By the 1400s, the source of origin for the spices was no longer a secret. Mariners and merchants knew where they came from; they just had to find the location. With a desire to circumvent the Arab, Venetian and Genoese strong hold on the spice trade in the East, the maritime nations of Spain and Portugal began exploring the oceans in search of sea routes to India, China and the fabled Spice Islands (Moluccas). Avaricious monarchs, eager to become part of the lucrative spice trade, were even persuaded to finance fleets of valiant sailors.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Silk Road was closed off to Christian traders, putting an end to centuries-old trade and travel patterns in the Mediterranean. Searching for a new livelihood, thousands of Venetian, Genoese and other European mariners, merchants and cartographers moved abroad, many of whom eventually ended up in Lisbon, Portugal, an important trading centre for European mariners and merchants during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Among them was Italian-born mariner Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who'd landed up there after being shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal in 1476. Columbus went to Lisbon, where he joined his brother, Bartolomeo, who worked as a cartographer. Continuing on with his maritime life as a merchant and sugar broker during sailing season, and focusing on his studies during the winter months, Columbus eventually came up with a plan to sail west instead of east, in search of a route to Asia and the exotic Spice Islands. After failing to convince the Portuguese king, John II (1455–1495), Columbus went to Spain. It was there that he managed to persuade the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand II of Aragon (1452–1516) and Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451–1504), to sponsor his first exploration of the Atlantic Ocean.

"Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World." ~ Christopher Columbus

Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain, on the 3rd August 1492 with three ships (La Santa María, La Pinta and La Niña). However, after just three days into the voyage the rudder on the Pinta broke, forcing him to make a stop in the Canary Islands on the 9th August. The rudder was replaced on the island of Gran Canaria, and on the 6th September the ships departed from the island of La Gomera and continued their westward journey across the Atlantic Ocean. On the 12th October 1492, five weeks after leaving La Gomera, the ships made landfall in what is now the Bahamas. It was here where he encountered a local tribe of Taíno people, an Arawak subgroup, who he mistakenly referred to as Indians because he believed he'd reached the Indies, which was the name used during the Age of Discovery to refer to various lands in the Eastern Hemisphere. This is the reason why Native American people are often incorrectly referred to as Indians today.

Gran Canaria - April 2004

The Taíno people ate a broad range of foods unfamiliar to Columbus and his men, foods such as cacao (chocolate), potato, maize, squash, peanuts and peppers. He spent nearly five months exploring the Caribbean, namely the islands of La Isla Juana (Cuba) and La Spañola (Hispaniola), during which time the Santa Maria ran aground off the northwest coast of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) on Christmas Day and had to be abandoned.

With the permission of Guacanagaríx, the Taíno cacique (chief) of Northern Hispaniola at the time, he left behind 39 men to build a settlement on the island and departed for Spain with his two remaining ships on the 16th January 1493. Whilst heading back to Spain he encountered the roughest storm of the entire journey, and on the night of 17th February he laid anchor at Santa Maria Island in the Azores. He left the Azores six days later, on the 23rd February, and headed for Spain, but due to yet another storm he was forced to stop in Lisbon, Portugal. After spending more than a week in Portugal — during which time he met with King John II (João II) to inform him that there were more islands to the southwest of the Canary Islands — he then set sail once again and arrived back in Spain on the 15th March 1493.

Upon arriving in Spain, he immediately wrote to the Spanish monarchs to announce his new discoveries. He'd also brought back gold, pearls, exotic birds, plants and several unfortunate natives. He was treated like a hero and received the highest honours from the Spanish Royal Court. So pleased were they that they even gave him the title of 'Admiral of the Ocean Sea'. He was unable to bring back any of the much sought-after spices because as we know he'd accidentally discovered the Americas instead of South Asia. However, in his captain's log book he wrote, "There is plenty of 'aji', which is their pepper, which is more valuable than black pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome".

Shipwreck - November 2007

Whilst Columbus was telling the stories of his adventures to the Spanish Royal Court, the Portuguese King, John II, publicly announced that the newly found lands which Columbus had just discovered belong to Portugal. By this point in history, the Portuguese were already undertaking long distance maritime journeys, and under the administration and direction of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460), a man regarded as the patron of Portuguese exploration and the main initiator of the Age of Discovery, Portuguese sailors had already discovered the West African coast to the south and Madeira and the Azores to the west.

After learning about Columbus's sponsored voyage, the Portuguese king sent a threatening letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, stating that by the Treaty of Alcáçovas, signed on the 4th September 1479, and the papal bull Aeterni regis, issued on the 21st June 1481, all lands south of the Canary Islands, including those recently found by Columbus, in fact, belonged to Portugal. He even threatened to send out a mighty armada to follow Columbus on his next voyage, with the intention of taking possession of the newly found lands for the Portuguese Crown.

Realising that Portugal's naval might was far superior to that of their own, and fearing that the Portuguese may interfere with their new discovery, the Spanish monarchs asked the pope in Rome to help them protect their claim over the newly found lands. On the 4th May 1493, Spanish-born pope Alexander VI (1431–1503) decreed the Inter caetera papal bull, which stated that all lands west of a north-to-south demarcation line 100 leagues west of any of the Cape Verde islands or the Azores should fall under the rule of the Spanish monarchs.

Unhappy with the new decree, believing it threatened his opportunity of possessing India and discovering new lands, negotiations between Spain and Portugal were held in March 1491, and the Portuguese king asked for the line of demarcation to be moved west. Although he acknowledged Spain's legal rights in territories west of the line, he argued that because his ships navigated those waters on a regular basis that the boundary line was too narrow.

These claims seemed acceptable to the Spanish monarchs, and after lengthy discussions both sides agreed that the new line of demarcation would be 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands or the Azores, instead of 100 leagues, leaving Spain free to claim land to the west of the line and Portugal free to claim land to the east of the line. This suited the Portuguese king because it now protected his route down the West coast of Africa and also left the eastern region of the Land of Brazil (Terra do Brasil) free to Portuguese rule.

On the 7th June 1494, both Iberian kingdoms reached an historic agreement, resulting in what is known as the Treaty of Tordesillas, named after the Spanish city in which it was created. Some historians now believe that King John II was already aware of the Land of Brazil prior to signing the treaty, and that one of his reasons for insisting the line of demarcation be moved west was to protect his rights to that land. Although the Treaty of Tordesillas was negotiated and signed by the two kingdoms in 1494, it was done so without consulting Pope Alexander VI, basically ignoring his papal bull. However, it was eventually approved and ratified on the 24th January 1506 by Pope Julius II (1443–1513), when he issued the Ea quae pro bono pacis papal bull.

The purpose of Columbus's second voyage was to conquer the natives, to convert them to Christianity and to take control of the region. Sponsored once again by the Spanish monarchs, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, he set sail from Cádiz, Spain, on the 25th September 1493 with a fleet of 17 ships and about 1,200 men and headed for the Canary Islands. He stopped in Gran Canaria to fix a leaking ship and then set sail the following day for La Gomera, where he remained for some days to stock up on meat, wood and water for the journey. He then left La Gomera and set sail for El Hierro, the smallest and most westerly of the Canary Islands. After leaving El Hierro on the 13th October 1493, he headed on a more southerly course than on the previous voyage and made landfall 21 days later, on the 3rd November, in Dominica, Lesser Antilles. Later that same day he also made landfall on Marie-Galante.

Shipwreck - November 2007

During his three year voyage, Columbus explored many of the Caribbean islands. In 1493, he explored the islands of Guadeloupe, Saint Croix, Antigua and Puerto Rico, and reached Hispaniola again in the Greater Antilles on the 22nd November. It was here where he discovered that the men he'd left behind on the first voyage had all been slaughtered by the natives. It turned out that two of the Spaniards had formed a murderous gang and gone in search of gold and women. This had angered Caonabó, the Taíno cacique (chief) of Southern Hispaniola at the time, which resulted in an attack being led against the 39 Spanish settlers.

The fleet then sailed north and arrived on the north coast of Hispaniola on the 2nd January 1494. It was here where they established the settlement of La Isabela. On the 24th April, Columbus left Hispaniola and arrived in Cuba on the 30th April and Jamaica on the 5th May. He explored the south coast of Cuba, believing it to be mainland China, and several smaller islands nearby before returning back to Hispaniola again on the 20th August.

Columbus decided to leave Hispaniola on the 10th March 1496 and head back to Spain to ask for more help in establishing the colony. However, due to unfavourable winds and low supplies he went ashore on Guadeloupe to request food and was met with great hostility from the natives. (Caonabó had obviously been putting the word around!) After taking a bunch of women and children hostage to force a sale of food, his fleet left Guadeloupe on the 20th April and landed in Portugal on the 8th June. He returned to Cádiz, Spain, on the 11th June.

Columbus made two more subsequent voyages to the Americas. On his third voyage (1498–1500), he visited Venezuela on the South American mainland and the island of Trinidad, before returning to Hispaniola, where he discovered that many of the Spanish settlers had formed an insurgency against his rule, claiming they'd been lied to about all the abundant riches that were to be found there. On his fourth and final voyage (1502–1504), he visited Trujillo, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama on the mainland, and the islands of Martinique, Jamaica, Guanaja and Hispaniola. However, despite his best efforts, in the eight years he spent exploring the Americas, he failed to realise that another continent and vast ocean lay between him and the spices. He died on the 20th May 1506 in Valladolid, Spain, aged 55.

The History of Chilli Peppers - Art

The First Circumnavigation of the Globe

By this point in history, the Portuguese had already reached India and their empire was growing stronger. Still eager to be a part of the lucrative spice trade, Spain tried yet again to find a maritime route to the Spice Islands. After being publicly humiliated and having his proposed expeditions to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) repeatedly turned down by King Manuel I of Portugal (1469–1521), Portuguese-born Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), an experienced mariner with previous military experience in Africa and India, renounced his Portuguese nationality and instead turned to King Charles I of Spain (1500–1558), who was king of Spain, as Charles I, from 1516 to 1556 and Holy Roman Emperor, as Charles V, from 1519 to 1558.

In accordance to the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain was free to claim lands west of the demarcation line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands or the Azores, and Portugal was free to claim lands to the east of the demarcation line. For this reason, Magellan proposed to reach the Spice Islands via a western route instead, something which hadn't been accomplished before, despite the best efforts of Christopher Columbus.

Realising the commercial value that such a trade route would have for Spain if Magellan were to be successful, and also being aware by now that the Americas were a separate continent and not part of Asia, King Charles I of Castile and Aragon approved Magellan's expedition to the Spice Islands and provided funding. It would later turn out that Magellan would have much better luck than Columbus, although such a route would not prove to be commercially viable for Spain.

Ferdinand Magellan's Spanish fleet consisted of five ships (Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Santiago and Victoria) and about 270 men. Much to the great irritation of Portugal, who in 1512 had already discovered the Spice Islands, the Spanish fleet set sail from Seville, Spain, on the 10th August 1519 and sailed down the Guadalquivir River to Sanlúcar, where they remained for over five weeks. They eventually set sail from Sanlúcar on the 20th September, and on the 26th September they stopped at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where they gathered supplies, such as food and water for the journey. On the 3rd October, they set sail from the Canary Islands and sailed south along the West African coast and then across the Atlantic Ocean. On the 13th December they eventually made landfall in Rio de Janeiro, and from there sailed south down the coast of South America, in search of a route through or around the South American continent.

Gran Canaria - April 2004

After several months spent searching for such a route, the fleet was forced to stop and wait out the winter due to bad weather conditions. On the 18th October 1520, after a five month wait — during which time one of the ships (the Santiago) had been lost during a bad storm and two of the men had been beheaded for attempting to lead a mutiny — they continued their search for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Three days later, on the 21st October, they discovered a bay that eventually led them to a strait, which Magellan named 'Canal de Todos los Santos', and this provided them with a passage through to the Pacific Ocean.

Whilst exploring the strait, which is now known as the Strait of Magellan, one of the remaining four ships (the San Antonio) had failed to regroup with the rest of the fleet. It turned out that they'd deserted the rest of the fleet and headed back to Spain. The remaining fleet, now consisting of three ships, eventually reached the Pacific Ocean on the 28th November. Having zero notions about the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean, what Magellan believed was going to be a short three or four day journey across a small sea from South America to the profitable Spice Islands, instead turned out to be a long and treacherous journey that took three months and twenty days! As a result, they used up all of their food and water supplies and many of the men died from hunger, thirst or scurvy. However, Magellan and several of his officers were not affected by scurvy because they ate preserved quince, which contains vitamin C. In hindsight, the crew onboard the San Antonio had the right idea!

Ferdinand Magellan and his men were the first Europeans to sail across the Pacific Ocean. On the 7th March 1521, after their long and dangerous voyage, the fleet made landfall on the island on Guam, the southern-most and largest island in the Mariana Island archipelago, where they remained until the 9th March, before continuing their journey. On the 16th March, they reached the Philippines and remained there until the 1st May. During his time in the Philippines, Magellan befriended many of the local tribes and converted them to Christianity. It's estimated that he converted as many as 2,200 locals from Cebu and other nearby islands. However, a tribe on the island of Mactan, led by Lapulapu, weren't having any of it and they resisted such a conversion to the religion. This resulted in a skirmish that led to the death of Magellan and several of his men. Ferdinand Magellan died on the 27th April 1521, after being struck by a bamboo spear, and would unfortunately never get to see or visit the Moluccas that he so desperately sought.

Due to a dwindling number of men, it was decided that the fleet didn't have enough manpower to continue operating three ships, and so on the 2nd May one of the ships (the Concepción) was set on fire. The remaining two ships (Trinidad and Victoria) spent the following six months sailing the waters of Southeast Asia in search of the Moluccas, visiting several islands along the way and engaging in acts of robbery and piracy. Sailing these waters was risky business for the Spanish fleet because they were now sailing in Portugal's half of the world! Eventually, on the 8th November, they reached the island of Tidore in the Moluccas, where they were greeted by the island's leader, Almanzor. They established a trade post and purchased a large quantity of cloves in exchange for other goods.

Shipwreck - November 2007

Around the 15th December, the remaining two ships attempted to set sail from Tidore with their precious cargo of cloves, but unfortunately one of the ships (the Trinidad) was in need of repairs because it was letting in water. The departure was postponed while the men and some of the locals attempted to repair the leak. When the attempts were unsuccessful, it was decided upon that the Victoria would depart for Spain via a western route, and the Trinidad would remain in Tidore to be repaired, before heading back to Spain via an eastern route. Several weeks later, the Trinidad finally departed from Tidore and attempted to head back to Spain via the Pacific Ocean route. However, this attempt failed because the ship was captured by the Portuguese and eventually wrecked during a bad storm while at anchor under Portuguese control.

The Victoria, now with Juan Sebastián Elcano as captain, set sail from Tidore on the 21st December 1521 and headed back to Spain via the Indian Ocean route. By the 6th May 1522, the Victoria had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and by the 10th July it had reached the Portuguese controlled Cape Verde islands. Upon arrival at the Cape Verde islands, the men used the cover story that they were heading back to Spain from the Americas, but after discovering they were in possession of exotic spices from the Moluccas some of the men were detained by Portuguese authorities. However, the ship managed to escape with its cargo, and on the 6th September 1522 it arrived back in Sanlúcar, Spain, the place from where the fleet began its Atlantic crossing almost three years prior.

From Sanlúcar, they sailed up the Guadalquivir River to Seville and made an overland journey to Valladolid, where they met with King Charles I. The first ever documented circumnavigation of the globe had now been completed by the Spanish, and today this expedition is known as the Magellan-Elcano expedition. However, only 17 of the 270 men who originally set sail from Seville on the 20th September 1519 were onboard the Victoria when it arrived back in Spain. They'd also brought back three men from the Moluccas.

Believing the Moluccas (Spice Islands) to be in the Spanish zone under the Treaty of Tordesillas, King Charles I of Spain sent out another expedition in July 1525, led by García Jofre de Loaísa (1490–1526), with the intention of colonising them. After a difficult voyage, only one of the seven ships that originally set sail from Spain arrived at the Moluccas, dropping anchor at Tidore in September 1526. With the Portuguese having already established themselves in the Moluccas in 1512, conflicts between the two Iberian empires ensued, leading to a decade of conflicts over the possession of the islands, which were still occupied by indigenous tribes. An agreement was eventually reached with a new treaty, which assigned the Moluccas to Portugal and allowed Spain to retain control over the Philippines.

The line of demarcation which had been decided upon by Spain and Portugal when they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1494, meant that fleets from both empires could potentially sail past each other on the other side of the world. Since the size of the world was now better understood, both empires agreed that another line of demarcation should be created on the eastern side of the world. King John III of Portugal (1502–1557) and King Charles I of Spain held a conference, and on the 22nd April 1529 a new treaty was signed. This treaty is called the Treaty of Zaragoza, and is named after the Spanish city in which it was created.

Another line of demarcation was placed 197.5 leagues east of the Moluccas, giving Portugal control over all lands and seas west of the line, including the Moluccas and Asia, and leaving Spain with the Pacific Ocean and the Americas (except for the eastern portion of Brazil, which is situated east of the Tordesillas meridian). Spain also retained control over the Philippines; even though they're situated west of the Zaragoza meridian (in the Portuguese zone). To reach the agreement, Portugal had to pay 350,000 gold ducats to Spain, in order that the Spanish relinquish their rights over the Moluccas. If he wished to, the Spanish king could have cancelled the clause at any time by reimbursing Portugal, but that never happened. The Treaty of Zaragoza did not modify the line of demarcation which had been agreed upon in 1494 when both empires signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. The map below shows both the Tordesillas and Zaragoza meridians.

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza Meridians
The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza Meridians

Although it would appear that Portugal received the better end of the deal, Spain soon realised the enormous wealth of the Americas, and during the 1500s it became incredibly wealthy when Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico (1519–1521) and Francisco Pizarro (1478–1541) conquered the Inca Empire in Peru (1532–1572). It's estimated that from the early 1500s to the mid-1600s, Spanish conquistadors imported over 100 tons of gold and around 16,000 tons of silver from the Americas. They also stole many religious artefacts from the indigenous peoples, artefacts which today may have been of great importance in helping us to understand more about the people of the past. They also left behind them a long trail of suffering, torture, misery, death and destruction.

During the Age of Discovery, one of the commodities that European monarchs craved for even more than spices was gold, and so after realising the true wealth of the Americas, Spain turned its attention away from the Moluccas and concentrated more on the great wealth of the Americas instead. By this point in history, Spain and Portugal had basically divided the world between them, and both empires became the early leaders during the Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration.

The History of Chilli Peppers - Art

Chilli Peppers Are Introduced into the Old World

Some experts believe that Diego Álvarez Chanca (1450–1515), a Spanish-born physician who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas, was the first person to bring chilli peppers back to the Old World. Chanca was said to have been a very observant man who had written detailed reports on the flora and fauna of the New World, with a particular emphasis on the flora and its usage as medicine. On the 30th January 1494, Columbus compiled a report of the second voyage to be sent back to Spain with Antonio de Torres on the 2nd February. The report was addressed to the town council of Seville and arrived in Spain with Antonio de Torres and his fleet of 12 ships on the 8th April 1494.

Columbus's report contained a letter from Dr. Chanca, which is said to have given the first written account of chilli peppers in the New World. He wrote, "Their food consists of bread, made of the roots of a vegetable which is between a tree and a vegetable, and the age, which I have already described as being like the turnip, and very good food; they use, to season it, a spice called agi, which they also eat with fish, and such birds as they can catch of the many kinds which abound in the island".

Note: the word 'Agi', sometimes spelt 'Axi', is what we today know as 'Aji'. It comes from the Oto-Manguean languages, which are the indigenous languages of the Americas.

Whilst reading through a copy of Dr. Chanca's letter I also came across the following: "This island was filled with an astonishingly thick growth of wood; the variety of unknown trees, some bearing fruit and some flowers, was surprising, and indeed every spot was covered with verdure. We found there a tree whose leaf had the finest smell of cloves that I have ever met with; it was like a laurel leaf, but not so large: but I think it was a species of laurel. There were wild fruits of various kinds, some of which our men, not very prudently, tasted; and upon only touching them with their tongues, their countenances became inflamed, and such great heat and pain followed, that they seemed to be mad, and were obliged to resort to refrigerants to cure themselves".

After reading that report it seems like they'd encountered the allspice tree and our good friend the chilli pepper. The leaves of the allspice tree have a glossy surface and are similar in appearance to laurel. Sometimes referred to as 'West Indian bay leaves', they have similar qualities to allspice berries and are used in Caribbean cuisine.

The general consensus is that chillies were introduced into the Old World by Christopher Columbus when he returned from his second voyage in 1496. However, given that Columbus believed he'd discovered the continent of Asia in 1492, and that he'd also written about the type of pepper that the local tribes used, I find it hard to believe he hadn't brought any chillies back with him when he returned from his first voyage in 1493. After all, he'd managed to bring back gold, exotic birds, plants and several of the natives, so why not chilli peppers? During Columbus's second stay in the Americas (1493–1496), several voyages were made back to Spain from Hispaniola, two of which were under the command of Antonio de Torres. It's always possible that on each occasion a cargo of chilli peppers could have been shipped to Spain. Whatever the case may be, assuming chillies were introduced into the Old World by Columbus, the earliest date they could have arrived would have been 1493.

At the time, chilli peppers were considered far too spicy for the average European palate, and so the plants were mostly grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries. The monks are said to have been the first people to experiment with chillies in cooking, using them as a cheaper substitute for black pepper. Incidentally, the reason why chillies are sometimes called 'peppers' or 'chilli peppers' today is because of Columbus. He referred to chillies as peppers due to their piquant taste, and believed them to be a more valuable version of black pepper. However, there is, of course, no botanical relationship between chilli pepper (Capsicum) and black pepper (Piper nigrum).

While the Spanish may have been the first people to introduce chilli peppers into the Old World, it was the Portuguese who are said to have played a much more influential role in spreading them. It's believed that the Portuguese spread chilli peppers into the Old World via their early 16th century trading routes and by planting them in their overseas colonies, namely São Tomé and Príncipe, Mozambique, Cape Verde and Angola in Africa; Madeira and the Azores; the Moluccas Islands (the Spice Islands) in Indonesia; Cochin and Goa in India; Colombo in Sri Lanka; Macao in China; and Nagasaki in Japan.

The Portuguese Empire began in the early 1400s and was one of the longest surviving empires in European history. By the 1500s, it stretched across the globe from the Americas (Brazil) all the way to Japan. They had bases in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Along with Spain, Portugal was one of the leading countries during the Age of Discovery, and by 1488 they'd already sailed all the way down the west coast of Africa, when Bartholomeu Dias (1450–1500) rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Ten years later, in 1498, Vasco da Gama (1460s–1524) sailed across the Indian Ocean and made landfall in Calicut on India's Malabar Coast, and by 1512 they'd also discovered the fabled Spice Islands (Moluccas). Within a few years of having discovered the spice lands they'd managed to source all of their spices and the Portuguese soon became very wealthy. This was bad news for the Arab and Venetian merchants because it meant that the Portuguese could now go right to the heart of the spice trade.

The Portuguese were said to have introduced chilli peppers into India (Goa) at the end of the 15th century or somewhere around the beginning of the 16th century. Prior to that time, black pepper and mustard seed are said to have been the main heat-giving agents in Indian cuisine. However, the use of chilli peppers soon caught on and eventually they spread to other parts of India and became the preferred choice for spicing up foods. Nowadays, over five centuries later, there are many chilli pepper varieties, including Bhut Jolokia and Naga Morich (both of which belong to the C. chinense species), used in India, and it's hard to imagine Indian cuisine without them.

Chilli peppers are now widely used in the cuisines of China, Thailand, India and Africa, but there are regions of the world where they've been used for much, much longer — Central and South America, home of the original ancestors and the starting place from where their journey first began. Chillies have now also become very popular in Europe, although paprika has been a popular Hungarian spice since at least the 1800s. It makes you wonder who's the most intelligent, the plants or the people. Either way, Pandora's Box has now been opened and we're never going to get the lid back on! Not that we want to, of course. While frugivorous birds may still be the primary dispersal vectors for wild chilli seeds, human beings are the primary dispersal vectors for domesticated chilli seeds, and we've even built our own large metal birds that can fly around the world and carry people!

The History of Chilli Peppers - Art

Pre-Columbian Use of Chilli Peppers in the Old World

We're led to believe that chilli peppers were unheard of in the Old World before being introduced by Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century, but is this really correct? There are some people who claim that chilli peppers were already growing in the Old World before that time. Evidence for the pre-Columbian use of chilli peppers in Southeast Asia can apparently be found on stone carvings from the 13th century Bagan era. They are also mentioned in the Siva Purana and Vamana Purana (sacred Hindu texts), and depicted in stone carvings at a Shiva temple in Tamil Nadu and on a bas-relief in Java, Indonesia, dated earlier than the 10th century AD. This could suggest that chilli peppers may have already had a presence in the Old World before 1496.

The following four excerpts are taken from John L. Sorenson and Carl L. Johannessen, "Scientific Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages" Sino-Platonic Papers, 133 (April 2004). SINO-PLATONIC PAPERS is an occasional series dedicated to making available to specialists and interested public the research that, because of its unconventional or controversial nature, might otherwise go unpublished.

Chile peppers, Capsicum spp., are also American plants. Yet they are mentioned in the Siva Purana and Vamana Purana, Indian sacred texts dated to the 6th through 8th centuries AD (Banerji 1980, 9–10). The Sanskrit name, marichiphalam, was applied to both C. annuum and C. frutescens, says Nadkarni (1914, 86). The C. annuum plant and its fruits are naturalistically depicted in stone carvings both at a Shiva temple at Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu (Gupta 1996, 50), and on a bas-relief dated earlier than the 10th century AD at the Prambanan temple complex East of Yogyakarta, Java (Johannessen and Wang, 1998, 28).

Johannessen and Wang Siming 1998, 27. A Chinese written character of Pre-European occurrence designates "chilli pepper." The plant is feral. One form in South Yunnan develops into a moderate-sized tree (citing personal communication from a biologist at Yunnan University, 1996). [Cf. the sculpture shown by S. Gupta of a tree-sized capsicum plant in India.] Furthermore, the chilli pepper plant is shown in Java on ancient panels on a temple wall constructed before the 10th century AD at the Prambanan Temple complex, East of Yogyakarta (see Johannessen and Wang Siming, Fig. 11). Besides, a considerable age for this plant in Asia is implied to account for its use in the daily cuisine of almost the entire Chinense population, especially in the South. The use of the same condiment in the diet of South India implies similar antiquity there.

Capsicum annuum
Origin: Americas
Summary: Three Sanskrit names were used for one or another Capsicum, and C. annuum was mentioned in a Hindu text (in a medicinal context) dating no later than the 8th century AD. It is mentioned in the Siva and Vamana Puranas, dated ca. the 6th–8th century AD. The plant and fruit are shown in sculpted art of Java and India in medieval times. The species was also found growing in Tahiti and Easter Island at a time indicating aboriginal cultivation of the crop. Both C. annuum and C. frutescens are cultivated very widely and play key roles in the cuisines of East, South, and South-East Asia.
Case 1: Transfer: to South and South-East Asia
Time of transfer: no later than the 8th century
Grade: A

Case 2: Transfer: to Eastern Polynesia
Time of transfer: Pre-Columbian
Grade: B plus
Sources: Capsicum annuum—chili pepper
García-Bárcena 2000, 14. C. annuum was found domesticated in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico from 4100 BC, although it was being collected in the wild long before that. Gupta, 1996. 49–50. Quotes Heiser re. arrival of Capsicum in tropical Asia from the Americas after Columbus. Regarding the 16th-century AD introduction of chilies by the Portuguese, "this obviously is not true. Chilies have been grown and used in India much earlier, as chilies are mentioned in Siva and Vamana Puranas, which are dated ca. 6th–8th century AD." Mention is made in Siva Purana that chilies (Capsicum) are an ingredient in a remedy for consumption. In spite of the importance of this plant in the diet, the author has seen them depicted only at Jambukeshvara Shiva temple at Tiruchirapalli, Karnataka. In all panels showing Capsicum, the flowers and leaves are true to nature (plates 55, 56) and not only showing fully developed fruits but also the different stages in their development are sculpted. In plate 55, the only discrepancy is regarding the large size of the plant motif showing a rishi [figure] sitting under it. The Capsicum plant is usually not more than 70–80cms. in height. [Note above, Johannessen's mention of a Yunnan Capsicum growing as large as a "moderate-sized tree."]

This next excerpt can be found on several websites. Svensk Botanisk Tidskrift (Swedish Botanical Society) is a peer-reviewed scientific journal on botany published by the Svenska Botaniska Föreningen (Swedish Botanical Society) since 1907.

In the publication Svensk Botanisk Tidskrift (1995), Professor Hakon Hjelmqvist published an article on pre-Columbian chilli peppers in Europe. In an archaeological dig in the block of St. Botulf in Lund, archaeologists claimed to have found a Capsicum frutescens in a layer dating to the 13th century. Hjelmqvist also claims that Capsicum was described by the Greek Therophrasteus (370–286 BC). He also mentions other antique sources. The Roman poet Martialis (around the 1st century) described "Pipervee crudum" (raw pepper) to be long and containing seeds. The description of the plants does not fit pepper (Piper nigrum), which does not grow well in European climates.

It's my belief that chilli peppers were already known about in the Old World prior to the Columbus voyages. Perhaps they weren't a heavily traded spice like cinnamon, cloves and pepper because their presence in the Old World was very isolated, but that began to change when the Spanish and Portuguese explorers entered the picture. It's also possible, if not highly probable, that chillies had already been spread to other continents by migrating birds long before 1496.

According to a study published in 2020, in the science journal Nature, conclusive evidence for prehistoric contact of Polynesian peoples with Native American peoples may have taken place around 1200 AD contemporaneous with the settlement of remote Oceania. The analyses suggested strongly that a single contact event occurred in eastern Polynesia, before the settlement of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), between Polynesian peoples and a Native American group most closely related to the indigenous inhabitants of present-day Colombia. If such contact did take place then it's possible that chilli peppers could have been traded or taken. It's also possible that chilli seeds could have been spread to the Polynesian islands from the South American mainland by migrating birds, and then from there made their way into other parts of Oceania and Asia.

Archaeological studies now prove that the Vikings had explored North America some five centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. It's also known that they'd travelled much further south than was previously thought, to a place which Icelandic Norseman Leif Erikson (970–1022) called Vinland (land of wild grapes), which is believed to be somewhere in the region of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Eastern Canada. (It should be noted that whilst some scholars believe Vinland means 'land of wild grapes', 'grape land' or 'wine land' in Old Norse, some Norse speakers believe it means 'meadow land' or 'vine land'.) Although it can't be proven and the idea is typically dismissed by mainstream historians, some researchers also believe that Vikings of Danish origin visited South America in pre-Columbian times, arriving in Brazil by sea from Europe in the 11th century and then proceeding inland to Paraguay. However, if such a journey was undertaken by the Vikings, there's no mention of them ever making a return journey back to Europe.

This next part, if not somewhat controversial, has nothing to do with chilli peppers or spices, per se, but suggests that history isn't always what we're taught it is. If you have a couple of hours to spare then I highly recommend you watch a documentary from 2010 called The Revelation of the Pyramids. Two versions of it exist. One is narrated by Professor Brian Cox and the other is narrated by Alika Del Sol. The version narrated by Alika is the original one. The documentary points out how ancient civilisations in Peru, Egypt and on Easter Island (all of whom are said to have been unconnected) used the same heterogeneous construction technique when building walls. They used large, sometimes gigantic, blocks of stone and carved them so precisely that not even a razor blade can fit between two blocks.

Wall angles found at some sites in Peru can be matched perfectly to some of those found on the Giza Plateau in Egypt, and the oldest constructions in both locations are the most complex and sophisticated. Furthermore, hieroglyphic writings found on Easter Island appear to be very similar to those found at Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan — 12,500 miles away. Some speculation exists as to whether the Egyptians and the Inca really did build some of these ancient sites, or whether they just inherited them from a much older civilisation (perhaps a civilisation that the religious hierarchy would prefer we didn't know anything about).

The documentary shows how many of the important ancient sites are located within a 65 mile radius, along a line that has a 30 degree incline from our equator and stretches for some 25,000 miles across the globe. It runs through Paracas, the Nazca lines, Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Sacsayhuaman and the Paratoari Pyramid in Peru; through the mysterious Dogon lands in Mali; Tassili N'Ajjer in Algeria; through the Siwa Oasis and the Great Pyramid in Egypt; through Petra in Jordan; Ur in Iraq; Persepolis in Iran; Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan; Khajuraho in India; Pyay in Myanmar (Burma); Sukhothai in Thailand; Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear in Cambodia; and ends at Easter Island, the most isolated spot on Earth.

It's always been my belief that at least one other global civilisation has existed here on Earth in the distant past, but was likely destroyed during a cataclysmic event. Some remnants of said civilisation still exist today, and others were destroyed by early explorers when they conquered new lands and set about trying to convert everyone to Christianity. Religious artefacts belonging to indigenous people were either stolen if valuable, or destroyed along with religious monuments because they belonged to polytheistic belief systems, something which Abrahamic religions seem to strongly oppose. Knowledge about such a civilisation was always known about by some groups in the past, but was eventually absorbed into secret societies, where today it remains hidden away from all but the initiated few.

"History is a set of lies agreed upon." ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

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