Spicier food in hot countries has been explained in terms of natural selection on human cultures, with spices with antimicrobial effects considered to be an adaptation to increased risk of foodborne infection. However, correlations between culture and environment are difficult to interpret, because many cultural traits are inherited together from shared ancestors, neighbouring cultures are exposed to similar conditions, and many cultural and environmental variables show strong covariation. Here, using a global dataset of 33,750 recipes from 70 cuisines containing 93 different spices, we demonstrate that variation in spice use is not explained by temperature and that spice use cannot be accounted for by diversity of cultures, plants, crops or naturally occurring spices. Patterns of spice use are not consistent with an infection-mitigation mechanism, but are part of a broader association between spice, health, and poverty. This study highlights the challenges inherent in interpreting patterns of human cultural variation in terms of evolutionary pressures.
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We thank Y. Ohtsubo, Y. Zhu, H. Kreft and W. Jetz for providing data, and M. Cardillo for assistance and advice throughout the project. The authors received no specific funding for this work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Ranier Gutierrez, Caitlyn Placek and Roland Sookias for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Charlotte Payne.
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Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 and Supplementary Fig. 1.
Details of all statistical tests conducted on all datasets.
Data analysed for this study (combined dataset).
Data analysed for this study (country-level dataset).
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Bromham, L., Skeels, A., Schneemann, H. et al. There is little evidence that spicy food in hot countries is an adaptation to reducing infection risk. Nat Hum Behav 5, 878–891 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01039-8
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