It’s hard to imagine life without the nightshade family. Includes delicious recipes and essential ingredients for a healthy diet, including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. But it turns out that one of these delicious flowering plants has a longer history in North America than scientists once thought.
According to a March paper in the journal new botanist, the pepper may have taken root in what is now Colorado at least 50 million years ago. Previously, the origin of chili pepper was placed in South America, he fifteen million years ago. The latest theory came about when a postdoc and his undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder discovered a fossil of a plant that oddly resembles a chili pepper.
“There are probably 300,000 plant species in the world. This group of 80 or 90 species is the only plant with this type of calyx.” Stacey SmithSenior author of the paper and associate professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Boulder in a press release.
[Related: 5 heirloom foods that farmers want to bring back from obscurity.]
Well-preserved specimens were found in the Green River Formation, a site packed with Eocene fossils and finds. But it ended up being less rare than the authors first thought: Two similar pepper deposits from Green River are hidden in the CU Boulder Collection, and another is hidden in the Denver Museum of Natural Science. These fossils were discovered in the 1990s, but it’s not unheard of for them to wait until the right scientists come along.
The Green River Formation is a marvel that captures the Eocene, which lasted approximately 34 to 56 million years ago and marked the beginning of the era of mammals. During this time, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere was about twice what it is today, paved the way for palm trees to grow in Alaska, and the lack of ice meant sea levels were 500 feet higher than today.
So what caused the gap between when chili peppers evolved in Colorado and when they appeared in South America in the Miocene? It is theorized that modern birds that were able to fly great distances may have carried seeds and plants in their droppings or clinging to their bodies.
Through birds, chili peppers would have reached South America. Birds can fly through shorter bodies of water or via a series of volcanic islands, scientists write in a new paper.
[Related: Oldest evidence of digested plants in a roughly 575-million-year-old creature’s gut.]
Nonetheless, this discovery places the earliest chili peppers in a place entirely devoid of native nightshade or chili peppers. , has been around for a very long time,” Smith added. “We are still working on this new timeline.”
So next time you break a meal Colorado Chilithat bowl of goodness may have even more local roots that everyone has noticed.