A Systematic Approach to Species–Level Identification of Chile Pepper (Capsicum spp.) Seeds: Establishing the Groundwork for Tracking the Domestication and Movement of Chile Peppers through the Americas and Beyond

Abstract

A Systematic Approach to Species–Level Identification of Chile Pepper (Capsicum spp.) Seeds: Establishing the Groundwork for Tracking the Domestication and Movement of Chile Peppers through the Americas and Beyond The chile pepper (Capsicum spp.), a plant held in great esteem throughout history, was independently domesticated in a series of places including highland Bolivia, central Mexico, the Amazon, the Caribbean, and other locales with a particularly long history of cultivation and use in the central Andes of South America. Though identification of chile pepper species through fruit morphology is possible and has been utilized by botanists studying modern and archaeological specimens, species–level identification of Capsicum seeds has remained undetermined. Given the greater abundance of seed remains in the archaeological record due to the higher likelihood of preservation, the ability to identify specific Capsicum domesticates has profound implications for tracking the domestication and spread of chile peppers prehistorically through the Americas and historically through trade and exchange to the rest of the world. This article presents a systematic procedure to identify Capsicum seeds to the species level created by adopting a morphometric approach to compare attributes of modern Capsicum seeds to archaeological seeds.

Abstract

Un Procedimiento Sistemático para la Identificación de Diversas Especies Chiles/Ajíes (Capsicum spp.) por medio de Sus Semillas: Estableciendo una Base para Rastrear la Domesticación y Movimiento de los Chiles/Ajíes a través de las Américas y el Resto del Mundo El chile/ají (Capsicum spp. L.), una planta que goza de gran estima a lo largo de la historia de la humanidad, fue domesticado independientemente en una serie de diferentes lugares, incluyendo el altiplano boliviano, México central, la Amazonia y el Caribe. Aunque hoy en día es possible la identificación de diferentes especies de chile/ají a través de la morfología de la fruta, la identificación utilizando solamente la semilla permanece una tarea difícil. Dada la gran abundancia de semillas en el registro arqueológico, el desarollo de esta habilidad tiene profundas implicaciones para el estudio de la domesticación y difusión de chile/ají en las America precolombina y el resto del mundo. El presente artículo propone un procedimiento sistemático para identificar especies de Capsicum adoptando un acercamiento morfométrico para comparer las semillas modernas con restos arqueológicos.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Professor Tom D. Dillehay for initiating our work on Capsicum. Araceli Aguilar–Meléndez was the original inspiration for a systematic study of these plants. We acknowledge Dr. Guanwei Min’s training and advice concerning SEM imaging of the Capsicum seeds. Special thanks to the USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network (USDA–GRIN) and especially Dr. Mark Bohning, Dr. Bob Jarret, and Tiffany Fields for helping us find rarer specimens of Capsicum. Our chile pepper seed vendors, and in particular Beth Boyd from Bayou Traders, worked with us to obtain various Capsicum species. We also thank our peers in the McCown Archaeobotany Laboratory, especially Alan Farahani, Rob Cuthrell, and Theresa Molino for offering advice and critical insight into our project. Alan Farahani, in particular, assisted us with statistics and commented on our drafts. We would especially like to acknowledge the helpful comments from our anonymous reviewers contacted by Economic Botany who aided in improving our manuscript.

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Correspondence to Katherine L. Chiou.

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Chiou, K.L., Hastorf, C.A. A Systematic Approach to Species–Level Identification of Chile Pepper (Capsicum spp.) Seeds: Establishing the Groundwork for Tracking the Domestication and Movement of Chile Peppers through the Americas and Beyond. Econ Bot 68, 316–336 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12231-014-9279-2

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Key Words

  • Archaeobotany
  • Capsicum
  • Chile peppers
  • Seed identification
  • Seed morphology
  • Ethnobotany