There are two main different kinds of plants that we call “pepper” – chili peppers and black pepper. Black pepper is the kind of pepper you think of when you say “salt and pepper”. People in South India were already gathering black pepper to spice their food in the Stone Age. Farmers in South India began to grow pepper by around 3000 BC.
By about 2000 BC, traders were bringing Indian pepper to other places, first to North India and then to West Asia. At first people were surprised by the spicy taste. The North Indian word for pepper – pipali- comes from an early Indo-European word “pip”, probably the sound people made when they spit out something spicy, like “ptui!” By the New Kingdom, traders brought pepper to Egypt: in 1213 BC, someone in Egypt put pepper in the nostrils of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II when he died.
Picking pepper in India
By about 500 BC black pepper was available in Greece. It was expensive, but many well-off families used it. By about 100 BC, black pepper also reached Rome and then the rest of Europe, where pepper was about four times as expensive as it is today. Heading east, black pepper reached China somewhat later, around 200 AD. Pepper gradually became very popular in China too, and by the 1100s rich families in China were starting to use a lot of black pepper.
At the same time, pepper was very popular in the Islamic Empire. Islamic traders brought pepper to Europe, but still for very high prices. It was partly because Europeans wanted to get pepper cheaper that they began in the 1400s AD to figure out how to sail south around Africa to India, and sent Columbus west to see if he could get to India that way.