LOS ANGELES -- Thousands of years before ketchup, mayonnaise or Grey Poupon, there was the red-hot chili pepper.
Researchers have found evidence that farmers in Latin American villages from the Bahamas to Panama to Peru domesticated the spicy fruit more than 6,100 years ago, making it perhaps the oldest condiment.
The scientists were surprised to find that those early agricultural societies had advanced beyond cultivating staples such as maize, yams, beans and cassava.
"This is an indication that there was a complex system of agriculture and sophisticated cuisine very early, even before pottery in some places," said Linda Perry, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and leader of the study, published today in the journal Science.
Perry and other food archaeologists found microscopic fossils of chili pepper starches on milling stones, on cooking vessels and in the dirt at seven early settlements in the New World.
The oldest fossils were found in two village-sized settlements in southwestern Ecuador first occupied about 6,100 years ago.
The fossils have a distinctive shape, resembling jelly doughnuts whose centers were squashed on both sides. It took several years to identify what left them.
Scientists suspected a starchy food, but none of the usual suspects - maize, potatoes, yams or cassava - produced the telltale shape.
Then an offhand comment about peppers causing digestive problems led Perry to consider them a candidate.
Scientists can only guess when chilies were first domesticated from wild Capsicum plants, which originated in Bolivia. Perry said she suspected peppers were as old as maize - domesticated 9,000 years ago - because both plants were found at every site the scientists examined.