Some 13.8 million years ago, a plant in South/Central America evolved a berry-like fruit with capsaicinoid proteins possessing a pungent property that deterred mammals from eating them. Ironically, that very same "spicy" quality – some 6,000-10,000 years ago – ends up having the exact opposite effect on humans.
While deterring mammals and attracting birds turned out to be a successful evolutionary strategy early on, it was human interest in the pepper plant that ultimately helped it spread across the globe. And, as caretakers, many cultures through the generations have helped these remarkable plants achieve astounding diversity.
Chile Pepper Milestones
Chile peppers are believed to be one of the oldest domesticated crops in the Americas and their popularity is either established or gaining in many cultures. Given the associated time frames, historical knowledge on their use is still being investigated and debated. Below, is a timeline of interesting milestones, to the best we've currently been able to determine.
Time period that most scholars prefer to recognize as the earliest verifiable period for chile pepper domestication with support for Capsicum annuum domestication in Mexico or northern Central America.
Christopher Columbus is believed to be one of the first Europeans introduced to chile "peppers" upon his voyage to the New World. Upon encountering the aji chile in the Caribbean, he labeled them as peppers due to their spicy quality being similar to the black peppercorns he sought. At this point, it's most commonly believed that chile peppers only exist within the New World.
Vasco da Gama lands in Calicut, India and is the first to establish an ocean route from Europe and South America around the Cape of Good Hope to India, opening the way for trade and likely the entry of chile peppers into Southeast Asia. Within 30 years of his arrival, at least three varieties of chiles were being grown and traded along the Malabar coast.
The Scoville scale is developed by the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville as a unit of measurement for the level of pungency (heat) in a chile pepper.
New Mexico State University's first horticulturist, Fabian Garcia, released the New Mexico No.9 pepper, a milder pepper with improved growing consistency, designed to increase consumption. Some credit this development as helping to lay the foundation for the canned and dried chile industry in the US.
Hungarian scientist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, successfully isolates crystalline vitamin C from paprika peppers. He later wins the Nobel Prize in 1937 for his discoveries related to biological combustion processes, especially in relation to the role of vitamin C.
David Tran, Vietnamese refugee and founder of Huy Fong Food, begins production and distribution of his Sriracha sauce in the US. It's believed to be inspired by similar sauces commercialized in the 1930s in either Si Racha (Sri Racha) or Bangkok, Thailand, depending on the historical account.
Bhut jolokia, or more commonly called the Ghost Pepper, from the Assam region of India, is recognized as the World's Hottest Pepper, clocking in at over 1,000,000 Scoville Units.
The Trinidad Scorpion Butch T takes the title of the world's hottest pepper at 1.4 million SHU.
The Carolina Reaper is named by Guinness World Records as the world's hottest pepper.
Creator of the Carolina Reaper, Ed Currie, announces another creation of his, called Pepper X. He claims it's twice as hot as the Carolina Reaper, but this has yet to be confirmed by Guinness World Records.
The Hatch chile (var. NuMex 'Española Improved') becomes the first pepper grown in space. Seeds were delivered to the International Space Station on June 5th, 2021, with the first peppers forming in October. On October 29th, 2021 ("pepper-picking day"), the first peppers were harvested and used in space tacos.