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A Global History of Trade, As Told Through Peppers

by Jacob Kuppermann on August 26th, 02021

A large number of peppers
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides an enlightening window into the history of global trade and human population movement through a perhaps surprising source: pepper genetics. The study bases its findings on a dataset of over 10,000 pepper (C. annuum) genomes collected from gene banks the world over. A research team led by Dr. Pasquale Tripodi of the Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA) in Italy devised a novel method to compare relative genotypic overlaps, or RGOs, between pepper samples from different regions.

The study’s method for comparing the genetic makeup of different regional pepper samples allowed for measurement of regional uniqueness and hypothetical patterns of trade. Source: PNAS

The study’s findings show that peppers — one species with a range of cultivars from mild bell peppers to exceptionally spicy bird’s eye chili peppers —  have for centuries been a hotly traded commodity on the global market. While culinary historians have long held that peppers were brought to Europe and then the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as part of the colonization of their original home in the Americas, the lack of solid trade records at many points along this network previously left much of their route ambiguous. The study provides a plausible, genetics-driven history of pepper trade, showcasing a complex, multi-directional pattern of spread over the course of five centuries of global commerce. 

Learn More:

  • Read the original study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
  • Watch Lewis Dartnell’s 02019 Long Now Talk that explores how environmental forces shaped trade and the cultivation of the first crops.