HomeScienceThe oldest chile specimen may be from present-day Colorado.

The oldest chile specimen may be from present-day Colorado.

It’s hard to imagine life without the nightshade family. Includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant, some of the essential ingredients for a healthy diet, and delicious recipes. But it turns out that one of these tasty flowering plants has a longer history in North America than scientists previously believed.

According to a March article in the magazine new plantologist, the chile may have taken root in present-day Colorado at least 50 million years ago, much earlier than scientists originally believed. Previously, the origin of the chili pepper was located 15 million years ago in South America. The latest theory arose when a postdoc and an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado-Boulder discovered a fossil of a plant that eerily resembles a chili pepper, especially through its pointy ends on a fruiting stem called a calyx.

“The world has perhaps 300,000 species of plants. The only plants with that type of calyx are this group of 80 or 90 species,” said Stacey Smith, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of evolutionary biology at CU Boulder, in a news release.

[Related: 5 heirloom foods that farmers want to bring back from obscurity.]

The well-preserved specimen was revealed in the Green River Formation, a site replete with Eocene fossils and discoveries. But it ended up not being as rare as the authors first thought: Two more similar Green River chile deposits were tucked away in the CU Boulder collections and another at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. These fossils were discovered in the 1990s, but it’s certainly not uncommon for discoveries to wait until the right scientists come along.

The Green River Formation is a marvel for capturing the Eocene, which lasted from around 34 to 56 million years ago and ushered in the age of mammals. During this time, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere was about twice what it is today, paving the way for palm trees to grow in Alaska, and the lack of ice raised sea levels 500 feet higher than it is today.

So what could have happened that caused the gap between the evolution of chili peppers in Colorado and their appearance in South America during the Miocene? The authors theorize that modern birds, which have been able to fly long distances for about 60 million years, could have carried seeds and plants in their feces or attached to their bodies.

Through the birds, the chiles would have reached South America. Since the latest discovery takes the evolution of chili peppers back to the days of Gondwana, transoceanic voyages may have been unnecessary. The birds could simply fly across shorter aquatic distances or across a chain of volcanic islands, the scientists wrote in the new paper.

[Related: Oldest evidence of digested plants in a roughly 575-million-year-old creature’s gut.]

However, this discovery puts the oldest chili peppers in a place that no longer has many native nightshades or chili peppers at all. “These chilies, a species that we thought arose in the blink of an evolutionary eye, have been around for a long time,” Smith added. “We are still taking in this new timeline.”

So the next time you kick off a Colorado-style chili meal, that bowl of goodness might have even more local roots than anyone realized.



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