Chili History and Origins

Chili History and Origins

  1. Chili History and Origins
  2. Domesticated Species
  3. Pungency
  4. Gastronomy
  5. References

Chili History and Origins

The chili (chile or chilli) pepper, from the spanish word chile) are fruits from plants of the genus Capsicum, belonging to the Solanaceae family.

They are originated from the Central and South America and have about 20 to 27 species catalogued. Among all these species, 5 have been domesticated. Archeological findings and evidences has shown chili peppers traces dating back to 7500 B.C. Researchers believe that the region of Mexico and some points in Central America are the origins to the species Capsicum annuum and South America to the species Capsicum frutescens. These are all theoretical studies that have not been proved yet.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to find them in his first journey to the New World. He had mistaken North America for the East Asian mainland and named the small red pungent fruits as “pepper” due to their similarity in taste (not in shape!) to the Black Pepper, the most important product in the East Asian at that time. In 1493, Peter Martyr dAnghiera wrote that Columbus brought home “peppers much more pungent that those originated from Caucasus”.

Chili pepper cultivation has become worldwide famous very quickly. The Portuguese and Spanish explorers had taken them to Africa and Asia at some point in the XVI century. There isn’t any consistent or exact proof about how chilis have spread to many regions in Asia from its beginning. It’s known that chili propagation was really, really fast in countries like the Philippines, India, Korea, China and Japan. Chilis were added to the local gastronomy of these countries almost immediately. We can easily notice how the presence of Portuguese colonies in India has affected their customs and manners, mainly in the gastronomy. In the region of Goa, for example, one of their famous dish called Vindaloo is an adapted recipe originated from the dish called Carne de Vinha d Alhos in Portugal.

Chilis have been commercially cultivated in the USA since 1600, approximately, when the spanish colonizers began their cultivation using the water of the Chama River, located in the north region of New Mexico, as the main source for their irrigation.

Domesticated Species

The 5 main domesticated species are:

Pungency (“Burning Sensation”)

The most important and unique feature found in chili peppers are the pungency or “burning sensation” that occurs when someone ingests or touches them. The substance responsible for this is called capsaicin. Actually, it’s a group of chemical substances formed by capsaicinoids. It’s often called capsaicin because it’s the dominant element on this chemical composition. The pungency degree of the chilis is measured in Scoville Units, named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville. Scoville has created the first method considered trustful for measuring chilis pungency.

The capsaicinoids are produced in the placenta of the chilis. Most people believe that the seeds are the region where the capsaicinoids are concentrated. Actually, due to their proximity to the placenta, the seeds end up absorbing the capsaicin. Besides the placenta, no other region of the chili pepper produces this substance.

The pungency degree from chilis is affected by several genetic and environment components, such as: genetic structure of each variety, weather conditions, growing conditions and the age of the chili plant. Besides, researches have proven that chili plants can present a higher concentration of capsaicin if it’s cultivated in regions where fungus attack is a major risk. The capsaicin functions as a defensive system to the plant and its fruits.

For more information, take a look at more of our articles about capsaicin, Scoville Units and also our Chili Database with a pungency degree classification of several varieties.


Some anthropologists believe that chilis were first cultivated due to their antibacterial properties. They have noticed that chilis are highly consumed in equatorial regions where fungus and bacteria reproduce themselves easily, causing many severe intestinal diseases. Others believe that chili had only been chosen particularly because of its unique taste.

Nowadays chilis have an essential role in the gastronomy history and culture from many countries. Chilis are more commonly associated with Mexico and its several delicious recipes. But many other countries have chilis as a very important ingredient, for example, India, Korea, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, etc. They are used in many different forms – dried, raw, smoked, on salads, fried and many more. Their pulp are commonly used to prepare sauces.


National Geographic News

Science 143:531-537

The Smithsonian Institute

Discover Magazine