Buried Village In El Salvador Yields Remains Of Chili Plants

November 19, 1996

The remains of the first chili plants ever discovered at a Mesoamerican archaeological site provide further evidence Salvadoran farmers had a thriving agricultural practice before their village was buried by volcanic ash 1,400 years ago.

Payson Sheets, a University of Colorado at Boulder anthropology professor, said 1996 excavations at the village of Ceren near the capitol city of San Salvador revealed a row of chili bushes planted adjacent to one of the household structures. The chili bushes, which probably stood at least six feet high, had been planted amid clusters of corn, manioc, beans and agave, he said.

Huge quantities of volcanic ash snowed down on the village about 590 A.D. following the eruption of a nearby volcano, blanketing the gardens and leaving behind telltale "ash hollows." The hollows were filled with dental plaster by the research team to identify specific crops, said Sheets, who directs the project.

Although chilies have been a mainstay of Latin American agriculture for centuries, "These are the first chili bushes ever found to have been growing at a Mesoamerican site," he said. Sheets and other archaeologists working at Ceren had previously found the remains of dried and strung chilis inside some of the ancient structures, much like those found in many Latin American households today.

Since its discovery in 1976, 12 adobe buildings have been excavated at Ceren, including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings and a community sauna, said Sheets. Buried for centuries under 17 feet of ash, Ceren is considered by many experts to be the best preserved prehistoric village in Latin America and a unique window on the everyday lives of ancient Mayan farmers.

In 1994, ground-penetrating radar work at Ceren revealed 22 more buried structures, a community plaza and crop fields. Although the absence of human remains puzzled scientists, the discovery that an earthquake rocked Ceren just before the eruption indicated villagers had enough warning to flee. "They did not even have time to remove their most valued belongings," said Sheets.

The remains of the chili bushes were discovered by CU-Boulder graduate student Paul Cackler and several other university students as they were digging pits to erect protective roof supports over one of the house structures last June.

Ongoing research indicates some of the household gardens were planted with "a surplus of specialty crops" that probably were traded within and possibly outside the village, said Sheets. One garden contained at least 50 cactus-like agave plants, roughly 10 times more than would have been needed by the household residents to produce their fiber, rope, twine and roofing material for a year, he said.

Ceren farmers used carefully crafted drainage ditches and checkerboard-like furrows to drain and trap excess water, "indicating they knew the practice would help to provide long-term sustainability," Sheets said. Alternating the crop varieties by rows may have provided some insurance against plant disease and pests.

"These people maintained a high biodiversity of crops in the village," said Sheets. "They had permanent cultivation and sophisticated techniques."

A group of CU students led by Jennifer Lewin has produced digital, three-dimensional color computer models of Ceren's household structures and artifacts that are available on the World Wide Web. The interactive, high-tech project allows browsers to move about in the virtual structures, viewing artifacts from various angles in accurate archaeological context provided by Sheets and his team.

The unique project was undertaken by students in the College of Architecture and Planning's Sundance Laboratory working through the university's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

Preservation of organic materials at the site -- including thatched roofs, house beams, woven baskets, cloth and grain caches -- has been deemed superior to the organic preservation at the Italian site of Pompeii by visiting archaeologists and volcanologists from around the world.

Crops and household items frozen in time by the volcanic blast indicate the eruption at Ceren took place early on an August evening. Located 15 miles west of San Salvador, the massive Ceren project involves scores of experts from the United States and El Salvador, including dozens of CU students and faculty.

An open-air museum hosting up to 5,000 people weekly opened at the site in 1993.

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University of Colorado at Boulder

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