Ancient Nachos?

The big question is, were nachos popular in ancient times? At least we now know chillies and corn were both readily available.

Chilli peppers come from the Americas, particularly Brazil and the Andes, and didn’t reach countries like India and Thailand until the Europeans visited there after their trips to the Americas in the 15th century.

But in the Americas, from the Bahamas to southern Peru, recent research has found traces of capsicum on the cooking pots used 6000 years ago.

Capsicum is in the family Solanaceae, with tomatoes, potatoes and deadly nightshade, and it includes about 35 species. The spicy, hot compound found in some species is called ‘capsaicin’, produced in fruits to deter seed predators.

But back to these grubby pots. Microfossils of capsicum starch grains were found on ancient grinding stones and cooking pots.

Starch grains are microscopic storage granules found in plants. It turns out they show a great variety of shapes and sizes, although to the untrained eye they look like ill defined clusters of blobs.

In many plants, the starch grains are unique for a particular species or cultivar. In capsicum, they can also be used to distinguish between domesticated and wild varieties. The capsicum grains on the ancient pots were from five different domesticated plants.

The fact that no starch grains of wild species of capsicum were found near the sites examined indicates that domestication occurred long before the sites were occupied.

Starch grain analysis is becoming a popular technique for recovering and identifying microscopic fragments of plants from fossil sites. It has showed, for example, that many early crops were domesticated in the lowlands of the American tropics, rather than in the highland regions as previously assumed.

Archaeological preservation of plants occurs more readily in dry, arid areas such as the highlands, and it was only with the advent of starch grain analysis that the tropical residues could be identified.

The starch grains also tell us maize was the only other plant present at all the sites sampled, so perhaps, just perhaps, nachos were an ancient staple (as far as I know, cheese making doesn’t leave starch grains).

Image: One of Warwick Orme's luscious Capsicum images. *From the Radio Archives (September 2007).