Could ancient Aztecs have held the secret to fending off shark attacks?

Aztec Indians hung strings of chilies from their canoes to ward off sharks. See more shark pictures.
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Scientists, chemists and marine biologists have scrambled for decades to find a magic potion to repel the hundreds of shark species that inhabit the world's oceans and seas. In the United States, research began in earnest during World War II because pilots and sailors constantly moved across shark-infested waters. Since then, in spite of many promising theories -- most recently using magnets and electropositive metals -- none have completely hit the mark.

Is it possible that native Indians in Mexico and Central America discovered a simple, yet effective, approach thousands of years ago? The Aztec Indians dangled strings of chili peppers from their canoes to ward off sharks in the water [source: Bavley]. The Cuna Indians in Panama still practice this custom today [source: Andrews].

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Cultivated chilies made their way into Aztec cuisine and culture as many as 6,000 years ago [source: Perry and Flannery]. The Aztecs jazzed up their diets with the peppers, as well as exploited its medicinal properties to soothe sore throats. The pungent smoke and fiery juices from the plants also were used as weapons and punishments, manipulating its spice into a powerful, stinging irritant [source: Bavley].

Along with chilies, sharks played a prominent role in Aztec culture. The Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico that bordered the Aztec empire are still home to many shark species. In 1978, archeologists discovered remnants of sharks' bodies beneath the ruins of the Aztec Great Temple, and those sharks most likely were sacrificed gifts to their gods [source: McDavitt]. They believed that the earth was created from an aquatic monster called the Cipactli, which has been compared to sharks, crocodiles and sawfish, and that the gods must be revived through regular sacrifice [source: McDavitt].

If the Aztecs had enough mastery over sharks to subdue and offer them as gifts to their gods, could they also have kept them at bay with strings of chili peppers? If you can stand the heat, head to the next page for the answer.