Skip to comments.Researchers find evidence of ritual use of ‘black drink’ at Cahokia
Posted on 08/08/2012 5:53:39 AM PDT by Renfield
People living 700 to 900 years ago in Cahokia, a massive settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, ritually used a caffeinated brew made from the leaves of a holly tree that grew hundreds of miles away, researchers report.
The discovery made by analyzing plant residues in pottery beakers from Cahokia and its surroundings is the earliest known use of this black drink in North America. It pushes back the date by at least 500 years, and adds to the evidence that a broad cultural and trade network thrived in the Midwest and southeastern U.S. as early as A.D. 1050.
The new findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlight the cultural importance of Greater Cahokia, a city with as many as 50,000 residents in its heyday, the largest prehistoric North American settlement north of Mexico.
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, said Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and a collaborator on the study with researchers at the University of Illinois, the University of New Mexico, Millsaps College in Mississippi and Hershey Technical Center in Pennsylvania. The Archaeological Survey is part of the Prairie Research Institute at the U. of I.
University of New Mexico anthropology professor Patricia Crown and Hershey Technical Center chemist Jeffrey Hurst conducted the chemical analyses of plant residues on the Cahokian beakers, a project inspired in part by a similar analysis they led that found that people living in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, in A.D. 1100-1125 consumed liquid chocolate in special ceramic vessels found there.
Despite decades of research, archaeologists are at a loss to explain the sudden emergence of Greater Cahokia (which included settlements in present-day St. Louis, East St. Louis and the surrounding five counties) at about A.D. 1100 and its rapid decline some 200 years later. A collection of ceremonial mounds, some of them immense, quickly rose from the floodplain more or less simultaneously on both sides of the Mississippi. The Cahokian mound builders spawned other short-lived settlements as far away as Wisconsin, Emerson said.
Greater Cahokia appears to have been a crossroads of people and cultural influences. The presence of the black drink there made from a plant that grows hundreds of miles away, primarily on the Gulf coast is evidence of a substantial trade network with the southeast.
I would argue that it was the first pan-Indian city in North America, because there are both widespread contacts and emigrants, Emerson said. The evidence from artifacts indicates that people from a broad region (what is now the Midwest and southeast U.S.) were in contact with Cahokia. This is a level of population density, a level of political organization that has not been seen before in North America.
How this early experiment in urban living held together for as long as it did has remained a mystery.
People have said, well, how would you integrate this? Emerson said. One of the obvious ways is through religion.
Europeans were the first to record the use of what they called the black drink by Native American men in the southeast. This drink, a dark tea made from the roasted leaves of the Yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) contains caffeine.
Different groups used the black drink for different purposes, but for many it was a key component of a purification ritual before battle or other important events. Its high caffeine content as much as six times that of strong coffee, by some estimates induced sweating. Rapid consumption of large quantities of the hot drink allowed men to vomit, an important part of the purification ritual.
At the same time the black drink was in use at Cahokia, a series of sophisticated figurines representing agricultural fertility, the underworld and life-renewal were carved from local pipestone. Most of these figures were associated with temple sites.
We postulate that this new pattern of agricultural religious symbolism is tied to the rise of Cahokia and now we have black drink to wash it down with, Emerson said.
The beakers, too, appear to be a Cahokia invention. They look like single-serving, cylindrical pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the other. Many are carved with symbols representing water and the underworld and are reminiscent of the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies (recorded hundreds of years later) in the southeast, where the Yaupon holly grows.
The researchers chose to look for evidence of black drink in the beakers because the pots were distinctive and fairly rare, Emerson said. The team found key biochemical markers of the drink theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid in the right proportions to each other in each of the eight beakers they tested. The beakers date from A.D. 1050 to 1250 and were collected at ritual sites in and around Cahokia.
Cahokia was ultimately a failed experiment. The carving of figurines and the mound building there came to an abrupt end, and the population dwindled to zero. But its influence carried on. Cahokian influences in art, religion and architecture are seen as far away as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin, Emerson said.
Residents of Cahokia, a massive pre-Columbian settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, consumed Black Drink from special pottery vessels like this one.
Caution, don’t try this one at home. Holly berries probably won’t kill you, but they are toxic enough to make you sick.
You don’t brew the berries, just the tender new leaves. Every year when the Robins migrate through they gorge on the berries.
“archaeologists are at a loss to explain the sudden emergence of Greater Cahokia”
No question: they were “coffee achievers”
Indeed. Also the Ohio River was another trade superhighway, with short portages to Lake Erie and the rivers that fed into the Atlantic.
I’m convinced that Europeans arrived here during the American “Dark Ages”—the occupation of barbarian tribes after the fall of a great civilization or complex of civilizations. Cahokia was its Rome, and its lingering vestiges were seen by De Soto and others in the historical Mississippian populations in the Southeast.
The Lenape had legends of a great civilization to the West, the Alligewi, who they and the Iroquois teamed up to destroy.
I know. You are correct, but just wanted to make it clear that using the berries is not a good idea. (And, frankly, I'm not sure I'd be all that interested in the drink brewed from the leaves either.)
Birds are headed for a rough winter here. The honeysuckle berries that the birds rely on during the winter have already dried up and fallen off. The bushes themselves are dying now too. The wild rose hips are like hard little rocks at this point. No wild grapes either.
I’ll put out a lot of seed and suet but I can’t save them all.
Not just the birds. The blackberry crop in Kentucky and Tennessee just dried up on the canes, and the bears in the mountains didn’t have anything to fatten up on this summer. Already there are reports of more bear-garbage issues than normal. A lot of bears will get into trouble this fall.
These things produce large quantities of caffein.
Worth noting ~ many analysts through the centuries, starting with the first Spanish explorers on the scene, have judged Cahokia to have some contact with CHINA.
This is about as far North as you can go in a serious ship (before modern dredging techniques and the development of a system of locks and dams along the upper Mississippi and the Missouri rivers.
About 800 AD somebody ~ no one knows who ~ showed up with the Old World invention called THE BOW AND ARROW. There are no traces before that period. Many have speculated that some folks with a taste for tea showed up at the same time.
Cahokia was developed on a long occupied area, but this town grew to have about 50,000 people making it the largest city North of Mexico City. The first traces of the dominant culture (with their totemic animals, ceremonial songs, dances and so forth) showed up about 700 AD ~ there was a big spike in cultural advance for the next couple of centuries, and by 1500, although it was still in business, they got wiped out by the great hanta virus epidemic that'd swept both North and South America (coincident with but not caused by European discovery ~ this stuff killed the Europeans as well).
It was so difficult to build up populations, whether native, or African, or European, during that period (hanta virus plague) that Europeans focused their efforts on mostly the offshore islands.
Finally, some time in the late 1500s things opened up a bit in South and Central America, and even in North America.
By the mid 1600s the plague had returned to North America but Europeans were too engaged in the 30 years war to much care. Major development didn't begin again until the late 1600s ~ first Bacon's Rebellion, the Pequot War, and a couple of other things demonstrated dissatisfaction with the Old Order of private development companies, and both led directly to the imposition of Crown Colonies on all the English claimed areas (and some of the French and Spanish claims as well).
In the meantime ~ mid 1500 to late 1600s there were some brave souls who were undoubtedly naturally immune to cholera, undulent fever, influenza, black plague, typhod, typhus and maybe a dozen other common ailments found in the then American heartland
They left some markers of their own behind as they did surveys and inventories of resources.
Yeah I hadn’t thought about the blackberries but I’m guessing there are none here either. I’ve got a full grown hickory tree in the yard losing all its leaves now.
There are no ground feeding insect eaters around much now because the ground is so dry that earthworms aren’t near the surface.
yes but were they Fair Trade holly leaves?
I doubt if holly is on the WTO’s list of things needing fair trade certification.
On the other hand, I don’t consider vomiting, extreme sweating and diarrhea to be a very “fair trade” just for a caffeine buzz.
“Coffee & tea” ping.
A species name like that would sorta tip you off.
You don’t have to make it strong. With moderate brewing it’s pretty good.
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