Research Communications


Sichuan Peppercorn and the Birth of Numbing Spices in East Asia

Guillaume Jacques1*, Jade d’Alpoim Guedes2

1French National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris, France. 2Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego, USA.


Received August 24, 2022 | Accepted February 1, 2023 | Published April 3, 2023

Ethnobiology Letters 2023 14(1):10–23 | DOI 10.14237/ebl.14.1.2023.1842

Abstract Sichuan peppercorn Zanthoxylum sp. is an important food condiment, currently used in East Asia and South Asia. In this paper, we review genetic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence regarding the use of Zanthoxylum by ancient human populations. The evidence from these three disciplines converge to suggest that its earliest attested use dates from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, in Western Sichuan, making it one of the oldest spices in East Asia. The paper also discusses how this spice was supplemented, and even superseded, by the introduction of the American Chili Pepper (Capsicum spp.). in the seventeenth century. We further argue that differences in the biosynthesis of numbing compounds between cultivars of Zanthoxylum sp. in northern and southern Western China that are due to deep evolutionary processes may have in turn influenced culinary preferences.

Keywords Zanthoxylum, Capsicum, Majiayao, Spice, Rgyalrongic, Tibetic


Prior to the introduction of black pepper (Piper nigrum) from India in the third century, and Chili Pepper (Capsicum spp.) from Mexico in the sixteenth century, local spices were considerably more prominent in the food preparation of people of East Asia than they have been in the last few centuries. Before the Han dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), the main food condiments attested philologically and archaeologically were Sichuan peppercorn (Zanthoxylum bungeanum/armatum), ginger (Zingiber officinale) (Liu et al. 2022), angelica (Angelica sinensis) (Sheng et al. 2020) and Chinese cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia), plants that were collected and eventually cultivated in areas within today’s People’s Republic of China, rather than introduced from the West.

From the point of view of linguistic evidence, although Old Chinese (the language corresponding to the texts written from 1300-200 BCE) and reconstructed proto-languages of comparable age in East Asia (proto-Hmong Mien, proto-Tai, proto-Rgyalrongic, proto-Lolo-Burmese) have words describing ‘pungent/spicy’ taste (in Old Chinese for instance sin ← *sin), the exact taste it referred to in pre-Han China and neighboring areas was quite distinct from modern people’s notion of spicy, which is essentially due to the wide availability of American Chili Pepper. Such a taste was unknown to ancient people of East Asia, and the exact meaning of these words in Old Chinese and proto-languages remains unclear.

In this paper, we focus on Sichuan peppercorn, the spice that is the best attested in the archaeological record and linguistic data. We review archaeological, genetic, and genetic data and propose a scenario on when Zanthoxylum was first cultivated and how it spread to the rest of East and South Asia, and what we can learn from it concerning ancient peoples’ linguistic classification of flavors and spices.

Geographical distribution

The genus Zanthoxylum (Rutaceae) consists of 250 species worldwide, which includes 21 that are endemic to China (Zhang and Hartley 2008). Two different species are referred to as ‘Sichuan peppercorn’ (in Chinese 花椒 huā jiāo). The most common of these is Zanthoxylum bungeanum, which is endemic to China and is found in a wide range of habitats that are below 3200 meters in altitude and is currently distributed across the provinces of Fujian, Gansu, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Liaoning, Ningxia, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, SE Xinjiang, S and SE Tibet, Yunnan, Zhejiang and in Bhutan (Zhang and Hartley 2008). Western China is the center of genetic diversity of this cultivar (e.g Feng et al. 2015, 2020).

The second one, Zanthoxylum armatum (in Chinese 竹叶花椒 zhúyè huājiāo ‘Bamboo-leaf peppercorn’), is also, however, referred to as Sichuan pepper corn and used in a similar manner. This plant has a wider distribution and is found in habitats below 3100 m and is distributed in the provinces of Anhui, Fujian, Southern Gansu, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Southern Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Shandong, Southern Shanxi, Sichuan, Northern Taiwan, Xizang, Yunnan, Zhejiang [Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Japan (including Ryukyu Islands), Kashmir, Ko rea, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Additional cultivars include Z. piperatum which is understood to have been introduced from Japan (Zhang and Hartley 2008). There are several key phenotypic differences between cultivars which correspond to genetic differences. For instance, Zanthoxylum bungeanum has (Red peppercorn 花椒 hóng huājiāo) red pericarps and Zanthoxylum armatum (Green peppercorn 青花椒 qīng huājiāo) has green pericarps, deciduous and lanceolate leaves, and earlier flowering time as well as a distribution that is limited to Southwest China, which explains the latter. Feng et al. (2020) hypothesize that these two cultivated species, Z. bungeanum and Z. armatum, originated in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces during the Miocene and then dispersed to other regions via long distance dispersal events.


Recent genetic studies have helped shed light on where these two populations of Sichuan peppercorn may have first been cultivated or domesticated (Feng et al. 2015, 2020). An analysis of SRAP markers from 175 wild and cultivated accessions found that red peppercorn accessions cluster within the Z. bungeanum complex, and green peppercorn accessions cluster within the Z. armatum (Feng et al. 2015, 2016). This study was limited, however, by the numbers of wild accessions they were able to access, which was restricted to specimens from Guizhou province. These wild specimens clustered closely with Z. armatum, suggesting that they were ancestral to the latter.

In a genome wide study, Feng et al. (2020) found that Z. bungeanum split into four geographic clades that spread across both subtropical and temperate China. They further infer a center of diversity in Gansu province, where samples from Wududahongpao (WDDHP) appears to be the ancestral population of Z. bungeanum from which other geographic clades arose. Two populations fell within the same clade as the ancestral variety in Gansu, which includes samples from Maowen in Sichuan (MWHJ) and a sample from Fengxian in Shaanxi. Each of these experienced very little genetic drift since their divergence from the common ancestor in Western Gansu. A second clade indicates multiple streams of Gansu to north gene flow including a series of back migrations that includes populations moving from Shandong to Shaanxi and Shanxi and back to Shandong. A final separate southwest China clade is represented by samples from Hanyuan in Sichuan (HYHJ), Qinlong in Yunnan (YXHJ) and Sajizhen in Guizhou (GZHJ). This last clade appears to have diverged prior to the common ancestor found in Gansu, but then experienced introgression from the Shandong and Shaanxi clades. In sum, this speaks to a center of diversity in Western China. Some cultivars also formed a separate clade with no genetic introgression either from the ancestral variety in Gansu or from later cultivars including HYDHP a sample from Hanyuan in Sichuan, suggesting that these varieties have been cultivated in relative genetic isolation throughout history (Feng et al. 2020). It is likely that these genetically isolated clades represent instances of cultivation of plants by farmers who did not exchange seeds with other areas following cultivation.

For Z. armatum, ancestral populations appear to have been located in frost free Southwest China (Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan) (Feng et al. 2020; Hu et al. 2023). For Z. armatum, an analysis of divergence events showed that wild accessions of Z. armatum clustered together and possibly diverged from cultivated accessions ~3−5 kya BP (Feng et al. 2020).

Feng et al. (2020) also found that while there were high levels of genetic diversity within Z. bungeanum, there was little to no genetic diversity within individual cultivars. While on one hand this high level of genetic diversity within the species is reflective of high adaptiveness to local environments, the local diversity within cultivars is due to its special form of asexual reproduction. Zanthoxylum sp. reproduce via facultative sporophytic apomixis (Fei et al. 2021), a form of asexual reproduction that produces offspring without the need for combining male and female gametes, and where the offspring have the same genetic makeup as the mother. In sporophytic apomixis there is little to no exchange of pollen to the embryo and pollen is involved only in the formation of the triploid endosperm. Only occasionally does sexual reproduction happen in this plant and most individuals in the population samples by geneticists were clonal (Hu et al. 2023). It is hypothesized that this trait evolved as a suite of anti-herbivory linked traits during the Miocene (Hu et al. 2023). This contrasts with the co-evolution with pollinators in the example of many other angiosperms, where plants develop traits that encourage dispersal by pollinators. Hu et al. (2023) argues that these traits, alongside the biosynthesis of allomones and alkylamides evolved to deter insect herbivory, but also by extension insect pollination. We argue that the long-distance exchange of seeds (that contained genetic material that was identical to the mother plant) contributed to the high levels of genetic diversity seen within Z. bungeanum as cultivars adapted to local conditions as they spread geographically. However, once in place, farmers were able to retain high genetic fidelity within the plants they cultivated without the need for grafting (although they may have practiced this) due to Zanthoxylum sp.’s asexual form of reproduction.

Hu et al. (2018) and Feng et al. (2020) found that distinct regional demands for different cultivars reflect local idiosyncrasies in consumer tastes; for instance, the cultivars of Z. bungeanum distributed within the tropical and subtropical regions south of the Qinling Mountains contain more numbing components but fewer leaf glandular puncta, which likely evolved because of increased insect herbivory action in Southwest China, than those north of the Qinling, which also possess a lighter pericarp. Generally, selection processes for traits in sexually reproducing long generation perennials take many human generations and domestication traits are generally seen later in arboriculture than for annual plants, like grain crops (Fuller and Stevens 2019). This is because each plant produces genetically distinct seeds and each seed needs to grow to maturity until its traits are evident, thus requiring substantial selection over generations of farmers. We argue that despite Zanthoxylum sp. being a long generation perennial, the emergence of a new trait (such as more numbing components) could have easily been maintained in subsequent generations due to sporophytic apomixis. It is possible that the higher numbers of numbing components in Z. bungeanum south of the Qinling mountains was a random mutation that evolved in tandem with increased pressure from herbivory, but one that was easily maintained given this plant’s form of reproduction. Humans in each area, thus, may have adapted their culinary tastes to the density of numbing compounds of Zanthoxylum in their area.

Sporophytic apomixis also makes Zanthoxylum an unlikely candidate to exhibit traits of domestication as asexual reproduction results in offspring that are identical to the mother plant. Indeed, there is little to no difference in flower type, seed size, or flowering uniformity between wild and cultivated varieties.


Archaeobotanical evidence makes it difficult to distinguish between the green and red varieties of Zanthoxylum as pericarps are often found in a carbonized form and color cannot be observed.

The earliest finds of Zanthoxylum sp. come from the Jingtoushan site in Zhejiang province which is dated to 6300-5800 BCE (Sun et al. 2021), but this isolated attestation is not followed by other finds in this area. Following this, Zanthoxylum sp. is found in Neolithic (Majiaoyao) layers in the Haxiu site in western Sichuan dating to roughly 3400-2900 cal. BCE (Zhijun Zhao: personal communication; Yáng et al. 2006). A radiocarbon date at Haxiu dates the site to 4470 ±30 BP (or 3340-3026 cal. BCE; d’Alpoim Guedes and Hein 2018). Finds then appear in Anhui at Yuhuicun 禹会村 by 2500 cal. BCE (Zhōngguó shèhuì kēxuéyuàn kǎogǔ yánjiūsuǒ Bèngbùshì bówùguǎn 2014), and then in the Shangtaizi 上台子 site in Inner Mongolia by roughly 2000 BC (Jia et al. 2017). Finds appear again at Jinsha 金沙 in the Chengdu plain by roughly 1400 BCE (Jiang et al. 2015) and again in Northern China (See Figure 1). Thus, by the second millennium BCE it appears that Zanthoxylum was already widely distributed across China.

Following this date, the numbers of finds increase substantially first across Northern China and Henan (Hénánshěng wénwù kǎogǔ yánjiūsuǒ 1986) and then finds center on Warring States period tombs in Hubei, where they appeared to have a prominent role as a spice in the Chu Kingdom, particularly in elite tombs (Sheng et al. 2020; Húběishěng wénwù kǎogǔ yánjiūsuǒ 1996; Yao and Xu 2008).

Figure 1 summarizes the sites dated BCE where Zanthoxylum remains have been discovered (the data on which this map is based can be found in supplementary Table 1).

Figure 1 Early archaeological attestation of Zanthoxylum (see the complete dataset in the supplementary file peppercorn.xlsx)


Historical linguistics provides important evidence for the knowledge and use of plants and animals by past human societies, and Bayesian phylogenetic methods provide dated language phylogenies that can be compared with archaeological evidence (Sagart et al. 2019).

When several languages have similar words referring to a particular plant or animal, several hypotheses are possible: common inheritance, borrowing, parallel innovation, or chance resemblance. The study of sound correspondences and morphological structure can be used to identify inherited words and borrowings, and exclude chance resemblances, at least in the languages groups for which this knowledge is available. Distinguishing between very ancient nativized loanwords and inherited etyma can be difficult.

On the other hand, transparent compounds, even if they comply with regular sound correspondences, are not sufficient evidence for reconstructing an etymon, as they could have been coined independently in each language after the split of the proto-language.

In this section, we attempt to determine the earliest proto-language for which an etymon specifically referring to Zanthoxylum can be reconstructed, in order to infer the timeline of the use and management of this plant among ancient populations of East Asia.

Overview of the linguistic evidence

No less than five language families are spoken in areas where Zanthoxylum bungeanum or Zanthoxylum armatum are endemic: Sino-Tibetan, Hmong Mien, Kra-Dai, Austroasiatic and Indo-European. However, reconstructible terms for Zanthoxylum species have only been found in subbranches of Sino Tibetan, while terms attested in other families are either borrowed from Chinese or restricted to a particular subbranch.

In the following sections, we first present data from non-Sino-Tibetan families, then focus on Sino-Tibetan, and finally discuss one particular etymon attested in several subbranches of that family and its significance for the history of Zanthoxylum domestication.

Etyma referring to Zanthoxylum in non-Sino-Tibetan families

The natural range of Zanthoxylum armatum includes parts of South Asia where Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are spoken. However, no known term for Zanthoxylum is found in Sanskrit or any ancient language of South Asia.

Some Indo-Aryan languages use terms for Zanthoxylum that are etymologically transparent: for instance, Hindi tejphal Zanthoxylum’ is a compound from tej ‘sharp’ and phal ‘fruit’. Such terms do not provide any evidence for ancient use and familiarity with this plant.

Another widespread form among languages of India is that represented by Nepali ṭimur Zanthoxylum’, which however is related to terms designating other plants (Sanskrit tumburu-, Pali timbaru- Diospyros embryopteris’ or ‘Strychnos nux-vomica’, Turner 1966: 335), and which present irregular correspondences indicative of contact rather than inheritance.

In view of the early attestation of Zanthoxylum sp. in the Jingtoushan site in Zhejiang province (Sun et al. 2021), one could have expected that either Hmong-Mien, Kra-Dai or Austroasiatic languages (the three language families that potentially originate from the speech of the populations from the early Neolithic lower Yangtze) could have a reconstructible term for Zanthoxylum sp.

Yet, in Kra-Dai and Hmong-mien, we have no evidence for any native term for this plant, even though recent fieldwork reports provide detailed documentation of terms for cultivated and wild plants. In these two families, most languages use either borrowings from Chinese or trans parent compounds. Some languages even use the same word to refer to both Zanthoxylum sp. and Capsicum sp.: in Mak (Kra-Dai) for instance, both plants are designated by the word lə²seu¹ from Mandarin làjiāo 辣椒 ‘Chili Pepper’.

Table 1 Etyma for Zanthoxylum in languages of the Austroasiatic, Hmong Mien and Kra-Dai families (Miáoyáoyǔ yánjiū shìbiān 1987).








sẻn ga
















lɯ̠ ²⁴



Wa (Masan)

ʔa tɕhip



Wa (Yancheng)

si giap



Wa (Aishuai)




















Baheng (Gundong)




Baheng (Wenjie)









(From 花椒)





In Austroasiatic, native terms are found for Zanthoxylum sp., but they are unrelated across the family and there is no evidence that any etymon is reconstructible to even lower branches of Austroasiatic (Table 1).

Etyma referring to Zanthoxylum in Sino-Tibetan

The oldest philological attestation of Zanthoxylum sp. in any language comes from the Old Chinese poem 椒聊 tsjew lew ‘The Pepper plant’ from the 8th century BCE:

(1) 椒聊之實、蕃衍盈升。彼其之子、碩大無朋。椒聊且、遠條且。 ‘The clusters of the Pepper plant, Large and luxuriant, would fill a pint, That hero there, Is large and peerless. O the Pepper plant! How its shoots extend!’ (Translation by Legge)

The noun tsjew (reconstructed as *S.tew in Old Chinese by Baxter and Sagart 2014) was used to build the name of the Black Pepper (胡椒 hújiāo, etymologically ‘barbarian Zanthoxylum’) and Chili Pepper (辣椒 làjiāo, etymologically ‘spicy Zanthoxylum’), following a new name was devised to refer to Zanthoxylum itself (花椒 huājiāo ‘flowery Zanthoxylum’) to distinguish it from the two previous plants.

However, Old Chinese tsjew (*S.tew) is unrelated to the name of plants belonging to this genus in other languages of the Sino-Tibetan family. Table 2 provides a representative sample of the forms found across the family, excluding branches where the term is borrowed from Indic, Chinese or Tibetan.

Four of these subgroups, Kaman, East Bodish, Nungish, Lolo-Burmese and Rgyalrongic, share similar forms to designate plants belonging to this genus. In the following, we analyze to what extent the resemblances between these forms are due to common inheritance, language contact, or chance, and what are the implications of these data for the history of the domestication of Sichuan Pepper.

Table 2 Terms for Zanthoxylum in several subgroups of Sino-Tibetan






Old Chinese

tsjew <*S.tew

(Baxter and Sagart 2014)




(Lieberherr 2017)


Tibetan Kurtöp

གཡེར་མ་ chawa

(Hyslop et al. 2022)



Karma Tshering,

Gwendolyn Hyslop (p.c.)




(Huang 1992)




(Huang 1992)




(Huang 1992)




(Huang 1992)




(Lai 2017)







Zhao Haoliang (p.c.)


Yongning Na


(Michaud 2018)




(Huang 1992)




(Li 2002)




Karma Tshering, Gwendolyn Hyslop (p.c.)

These four subgroups are not particularly close to each other in the phylogeny of Sino-Tibetan. Table 2 illustrates the place of these four subgroups and their respective age according to Sagart et al.’s (2019) phylogeny of the Sino-Tibetan family.


Description automatically generatedFigure 2 Simplified topology of the Sino-Tibetan phylogenetic tree (terminal nodes in bold). Tree topology and ages inferred are based on the relaxed-clock covarion model, data cited from Sagart et al. (2019). Branch length is irrelevant.

 Contact of inheritance?

The apparent resemblance one can observe between the Nungish, Lolo Burmese, Rgyalrongic and Kaman forms in Table 2 is strongly indicative of a historical relationship, but it remains to be shown whether this etymon reflects inheritance from the common ancestor of all these languages or borrowing between some of them.

In addition, we will see below, some Rgyalrongic and Lolo-Burmese languages have similar forms for the noun Zanthoxylum and the adjective ‘be spicy’, raising the question of their etymological relationship. In the following, we first discuss the data from the Rgyalrongic group, and show that the term for ‘spicy’ derives from the name of Zanthoxylum. Then, using sound correspondence, we argue that the similar forms found in Lolo-Burmese, and Kaman might reflect common inheritance, while the same is unlikely to be true for Dulong.


Rgyalrongic languages are spoken in the Dkarmdzes and Rngaba districts of Western Sichuan, China (see Figure 3). They can be divided into two subbranches, Core Rgyalrong (Situ, Japhug, Tshobdun and Zbu) and West Rgyalrongic (Stau, Khroskyabs and the ancient language Tangut, Lai et al. 2020).


Description automatically generated

Figure 3 Burmo-Rgyalrongic languages (Purple: Rgyalrongic and para Rgyalrongic; Cyan: Naish and Ersuic; Blue: Lolo-Burmese).

In West Rgyalrongic (see Figure 2) the term for Zanthoxylum presents an obvious resemblance with the adjective ‘be spicy’ (Table 3). The two etyma only differ by the voicing of the initial consonant and go back to *rts(ʰˠ and *rndzæˠin their common ancestor, respectively.1 The semantic link between these two etyma and its significance for the history of taste classifications is discussed below.

Table 3 Comparison of the etyma for ‘Zanthoxylum’ and the verb ‘be spicy’ in Rgyalrongic languages.



‘be hot, be spicy’





(Zhang 2020)

Situ (Bragbar)



Situ (Cogtse)



(Lin 2016)




(Lai 2017)

Mazur Stau



(Gates 2021)




𘟌512 tsar1.80


𘟋45 zar1.80

(Honkasalo 2019)




(Huang 1992)




The data in Table 3 show that both the noun ‘Zanthoxylum’ and the verb ‘be spicy’ are reconstructible to the Macro-Rgyalrongic node. The noun ‘Zanthoxylum’ is not found in East Rgyalrongic, but attested in West Rgyalrongic, Muya and Zhaba. From the point of view of sound correspondences, the first syllable of the Zhaba ʂtse³¹shə⁵⁵ Zanthoxylum’ is phonologically compatible with Khroskyabs rtsʰɑ́v Zanthoxylum’. The historical phonology of Zhaba is very imperfectly understood, but we find the same onset correspondence in ‘lung’ (Khroskyabs rtsʰóz, Zhaba ʂtse⁵⁵pe⁵⁵) and the same rhyme correspondence in ‘scoop water’ (Japhug kaβ, Zhaba tə³¹khe⁵⁵) and ‘needle’ (Japhug taqaβ, Khroskyabs ʁɑ̂v and Zhaba je⁵⁵). The second syllable -shə⁵⁵ is a suffix occurring in plant names. As for Muya zɐ¹³, the rhyme correspondence is ascertained by the Tibetan loanword thɐ⁵³‘method’ (from Tibetan thabs ‘method’), and the voicing of the initial is also found in nouns such as zə̱⁵³ ‘shoe’ (cognate of Japhug tɯ-xtsa ‘shoe’). In East Rgyalrongic, the terms of ‘Zanthoxylum’ are secondary. Situ mdzartsá Zanthoxylum’ is clearly analyzable: mdzar- is a radical that appears in the name of prickly plants such as mdzarwú (Circium shansiense Petrak.) and -tsa is a diminutive suffix (Zhang 2020:110).2 This name, a possessive compound, which literally means ‘(plant having) small thorns’, refers to the thorns of the Zanthoxylum. As for Japhug tɕɣom Zanthoxylum’, it appears to be related to the noun for smɯ-tɕɣom ‘spark’, possibly a metaphor about the fizzy oral sensation of this spice.

The etymological relationship between these two etyma raises the question of the directionality of derivation. Two hypotheses are possible:

1. Adjective to noun: ‘the spicy (one)’ → Zanthoxylum

2. Noun to adjective: Zanthoxylum → ‘be spicy’3

The only way to decide between these two hypotheses is to take morphological alternations into account. Voicing alternations are found in Rgyalrongic, but only the directionality UNVOICED VOICED (or voiced prenasalized) is attested (Gates et al. 2022). Since devoicing processes are not otherwise attested, the adjective-to-noun hypothesis is extremely unlikely.4

Moreover, the source of voicing in the case of ‘be spicy’ reveals itself when comparing with East Rgyalrongic. East Rgyalrongic languages preserve presyllables lost in West Rgyalrongic (Lai et al. 2020), nasal presyllables induce onset voicing. Thus, proto-Khroskyabs *rndzæˠp¹ ‘be spicy’ can come from earlier *N-rts(ʰ)æˠp¹, where *N- represents any nasal pre syllable. The mɤ- presyllable in Japhug mɤrtsaβ ‘be spicy’ and other East Rgyalrongic languages thus accounts for the voicing in West Rgyalrongic and can be analyzed as a mɤ- denominal prefix deriving intransitive verbs and adjectives (Jacques 2021: 1044-1045).


The Rgyalrongic etymon ‘be spicy’ (pre-Khroskyabs *N-rts(ʰ)æˠp¹, Japhug mɤrtsaβ) directly corresponds to Burmese tsap ‘be spicy’, which could originate from either *dzap or *dʒap in proto-Burmish (Gong and Hill 2020). This proto-form is also compatible with the etyma for Zanthoxylum in several Burmish languages, including Zaiwa tʃap²¹ʃi²¹, Achang tɕap⁵⁵ʂə³¹, reconstructed as *dʒap-ʃeH (Gong and Hill 2020). In these nouns, the second syllable (for instance Achang ʂə³¹) means ‘fruit’, and they can thus be analyzed as compounds meaning ‘spicy plant’.

Achang tɕap⁵⁵ʂə³¹ Zanthoxylum’ and related Burmish forms are not direct cognates of the Rgyalrongic etymon for ‘Zanthoxylum’ (pre-Khroskyabs *rtsʰæˠp¹), but rather represent secondary compounds, built from the adjective ‘spicy’ (see the summary in Figure 4).


Description automatically generated

Figure 4 Derivational history of the etyma for ‘Zanthoxylum’ and ‘be spicy’ in Burmo-Rgyalrongic languages.

Nungish and Jinghpo

In Nungish, the terms for ‘Zanthoxylum’ are phonetically similar to the etymon ‘be spicy’ in Rgyalrongic and Burmish and have a voiced onset (Dulong ɑ³¹dʑɑp⁵⁵ ‘Zanthoxylum’ and Rawang vzvp Zanthoxylum armatum’ LaPolla and Sangdong 2015). Due to the discrepancy in voicing, these forms cannot be direct cognates of the Rgyalrongic etymon for Zanthoxylum and should rather be analyzed as early borrowings from the Burmish ‘spicy’ etymon, that took place before Burmish languages changed their voiced obstruents to unaspirated unvoiced stops.

Jinghpo, a language in contact with both Burmish languages and Dulong, does not have a related etymon for ‘Zanthoxylum’, but has the adjective tʃap³¹ ‘spicy’ (Huang 1992). This form is compatible with the correspondences of early Burmese loanwords into Jinghpo (Kurabe 2016), and in view of the fact that this etymon is not found in any of the languages that are phylogenetically closest to Jinghpo (Bodo-Garo, Northern Naga and Sak).


The Tibetan word གཡེར་མ་ for Zanthoxylum is retained in most modern Tibetic languages (the languages descended from Old Tibetan). An exception is Dzongkha, a Tibetic language of Bhutan, where ema (from became the word for Chili Pepper (Capsicum sp.), and was replaced by thiŋŋe in the meaning Zanthoxylum, an etymon attested in Classical Tibetan as tʰiŋ.li referring to Pepperweed (Lepidium latifolium), from Chinese tínglìzǐ.

While Tibetic etyma for Zanthoxylum are unrelated to the root found in Rgyalrongic, the East Bodish language Kurtöp has chawa Zanthoxylum’ (Hyslop et al. 2022), whose first syllable could go back to earlier *tɕʰap with a *-(b)a suffix and intervocalic lenition. In polysyllabic Tibetan loanwords or cognates with -ba as a second syllable, when the first syllable has a coda, it is lost in Kurtöp, and the consonant of the suffix is lenited to w, as shown by examples such as phawa ‘Dhole, Cuon alpinus’ from Tibetan འཕར་བ་ ⁿpʰ or sawan ‘seed’ from Tibetan ས་བོན་ sa.bon.

In this hypothesis, Kurtöp preserved the cognate of the Burmo-Rgyalrongic root for Zanthoxylum, while Tibetic languages (including Old Tibetan) lost it. In this verb, the etymon གཡེར་མ་ is an innovation, though its origin meaning is not known (the example of Dzongkha in again case leads credence to the idea that semantic shifts can occur with this plant name).


Kaman tɕʰap⁵³ Zanthoxylum’ (Li 2002: 258-259) appears to be phonetically compatible with the Rgyalrongic etymon for ‘Zanthoxylum’ (pre-Khroskyabs *rts(ʰ)æˠp¹). The historical phonology of Kaman has never been thoroughly investigated, and we lack any additional example of Rgyalrongic *rts(ʰ)- corresponding to Kaman tɕʰ-, but given the limited number of examples with this onset, this absence may be fortuitous.

Thus, the comparison of Kaman tɕʰap⁵³ Zanthoxylum’ with the previous etyma is plausible. Kaman is not in contact with Burmo-Gyalrongic languages, and unlike in the case of Nungish and Jinghpo, this etymon cannot be easily explained as a borrowing from Burmish. It could reflect inheritance from the common ancestor of Kaman and Burmo-Rgyalrongic, but this could entail a very early date. Another possibility is early borrowing from a non-Bodic languages (or from the ancestor of Tibetic, before the term གཡེར་མ་ Zanthoxylum’ was innovated).

Zanthoxylum and spicy condiments

The etymological relationship between the noun Zanthoxylum and verb ‘be spicy’ discussed above is not entirely straightforward. The current meaning of the etymon ‘be spicy’ in Rgyalrongic languages (such as Khroskyabs rdzɑ́v) refer to the hot sensation of Chili Pepper, rather than the tingling and numbing oral sensation of Zanthoxylum, for which different terms are used. For instance, in Japhug, the taste of Zanthoxylum is not described by the adjective mɤrtsaβ ‘spicy’, but rather by the ideophonic verb ɣɤzɯβzɯβ ‘have the numbing taste of Zanthoxylum’.5

This discrepancy suggests that the meaning of the adjective ‘be spicy’ independently changed in all Burmo-Rgyalrongic languages in the last four centuries, following the introduction of Chili. Its original meaning must have rather referred to the oral sensation caused by Zanthoxylum, but when Chili replaced Zanthoxylum as the main food condiment due to its stronger oral sensation, speakers of Burmo-Rgyalrongic languages changed their understanding of the notion of ‘spicy’. Rather than coining a new word to describe this new flavor, they created new words to refer to that of Zanthoxylum, the older, but now secondary, condiment.

Summary of the linguistic evidence

The linguistic data reviewed in this section suggest that an etymon for Zanthoxylum is reconstructible to the common ancestor of Rgyalrongic, Lolo Burmese and Bodish, dated 4847 BP [3363–6429 BCE]) according to the main analysis of Sagart et al. (2019). It is possible that a cognate exists in Ka man. Although this language was not included in Sagart et al. (2019), the closely related languages Yidu and Taraon were, and the common ancestor of Rgyalrongic and Yidu-Taraon would go back to 6009 BP [4124–7834 BCE], very close to the root of the Sino-Tibetan family.

Outside of the Sino-Tibetan family, there is no evidence of reconstructible term for Zanthoxylum in any other language family, including the Kra-Dai, Hmong-Mien and Austroasiatic, the three families of Southern China and South-East Asia that are plausibly originate from the Neolithic population of the Lower Yangtze, where the earliest isolated attestation of Zanthoxylum has been found.


Archaeobotanical and genetic evidence converge to indicate that Zanthoxylum was employed by ancient populations in Western Sichuan at least in the fourth millennium BCE, before its use spread to the Central plains of China a millennium later. The mid-fourth millennium is slightly earlier than the approximate date of the common ancestor of Tibeto-Rgyalrongic, the earliest proto-language in which an etymon for Zanthoxylum is reconstructible, as shown by the evidence in this paper. Western Sichuan is also a fitting localization of the ancestral language of Tibetic and Rgyalrongic languages: the 哈休 Haxiu site where the earliest (although as of yet, not directly dated) evidence of Zanthoxylum was found is located in an area where the Rgyalrongic language Japhug is currently spoken. Incidentally, since the Chinese name Haxiu originates from Japhug ɬaɕɯ (whose etymology is unclear, though the first syllable is probably the Tibetan word lha ‘god’) an alternative name Lhashu based on Japhug could be used to refer to this site.

The linguistic evidence is thus compatible with the main conclusions of the other disciplines and supports the view that the earliest known use of Zanthoxylum could have been by millet farmer populations of Western Sichuan, around 5000 years ago, although evidence for its wider spread across Asia dates to later.

Although foragers inhabited Western Sichuan for millennia before the arrival of Neolithic farmers, and presumably would have been familiar with Zanthoxylum, there is no direct evidence that they used it for food consumption, and in any case, we have no trace of the languages they spoke. The isolated find of Zanthoxylum in the Jingtoushan site in the Lower Yangtze in the sixth-seventh millennium BCE reflects an independent early use of this plant. However, in view of the paucity of later evidence, and absence of linguistic support for ancient use of Zanthoxylum among people of Southern China, it may be a dead-end, reflecting discontinuity of use among these ancient populations.

The American domesticate Chili Pepper (Capsicum spp.) has served as a supplement or even a substitute of Zanthoxylum sp. after its introduction in East Asia from the seventeenth century, and has completely replaced it in many areas, to the extent that the original terms designating Zanthoxylum sp., formerly the main spice condiment, has been lost in many areas.


1No systematic reconstruction of proto-West Rgyalrongic has been proposed, but these reconstructions are based on Lai (2021). The Geshiza forms show an unexplained irregularity in the preinitials: r- would be expected in the noun ltsʰəu ‘Zanthoxylum’, perhaps a clue that this word has been borrowed from a closely related Gyalrongic language.

2Although the second syllable of Situ mdzartsá Zanthoxylum’ superficially resembles that of martsáp ‘be spicy’, no known morphological process could cause a final -p to disappear in word-final position in Rgyalrongic, and this resemblance is fortuitous.

3In English for instance, the adjectives ‘spicy’ or ‘peppery’ come from the nouns ‘spice’ and ‘pepper’, not the other way round.

4This hypothesis could only be supported if incontrovertible examples of onset devoicing are found in Rgyalrongic.

5In Chinese, the adjective ‘numbing’ is used to describe this sensation.


Some of the fieldwork data has been obtained thanks to the project ‘An Ethnobotanical Study of Rgyalrongic Languages’ funded by The National Social Science Fund of China (19BYY190).


Permissions: None declared.

Sources of funding: None declared.

Conflicts of Interest: None declared.

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