Made from the roasted leaves of the Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) that grew more than 300 miles away, researchers found evidence that inhabitants at Cahokia were enjoying caffeinated tea beverages some 700 to 900 years ago.
Maybe enjoying isn’t the right word. The “black drink” was used by different groups for different purposes, but according to researchers it was a key component in a purification ritual before battle or other important events. The drink had as much as six times the amount of caffeine as a strong cup of coffee, which induced sweating. Quick consumption of the hot beverage allowed men to vomit, an important part of the purification ritual according to researchers.
"We're not sure when Native Americans stopped using black drink," researcher Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, told LiveScience. "I think its use went more into the closet, due to pressure from Europeans to drop pagan practices."
LiveScience reports that people in South America still make drinks from varieties of holly, like yerba maté and té o’ maté, though the drinks are typically made in more relaxed settings.
The researchers found evidence of the black drink in eight single-serving beakers with symbols representing water and the underworld carved on them. Evidence of the drink—theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid—was found in each of the eight rare beakers found at Cahokia. Finding this evidence suggests that Cahokia had a vibrant trade network—the holly used in the drink grew hundreds of miles away in the southeast.
Cahokia was home to some 50,000 people from about 1050 to 1350 in what is now St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois and the surrounding five counties near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
The carvings on the beakers are also reminiscent of the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies seen centuries later in the southeast.
"This finding brings to us a whole wide spectrum of religious and symbolic behavior at Cahokia that we could only speculate about in the past," Emerson told LiveScience. "Cahokia may have been the birthplace of many of the political, social, and religious concepts that typified the societies of the southeast between 1100 and 1600 A.D. The presence of black drink supports the idea that North America's first city was of critical importance in the future development of Native societies in the eastern woodlands of the United States.
"Tracing the geographical spread and history of black drink will be a challenge," Emerson added. "We have established its use at 1050 A.D. in Cahokia, but other archaeologists have speculated that it may have been in use as early as the time of Christ. Now that we have found it 300 miles outside of its native range, it means that we cannot automatically assume it was not exported to many areas. The testing of vessels across much of the eastern U.S. will be a slow and time-consuming job."
The study on the black drink appeared online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 6.