It’s one of those identifying flashes that connect us instantly with the past. As early as 1050 A.D. inhabitants of North America, specifically east of St. Louis, Mo., were seeking out, brewing and ritually drinking in copious quantities a substance anthropologists are calling Black Drink. They probably did this before conducting any important activities. The drinkers were probably mostly men and the beverage they were drinking was made from leaves and twigs of species of holly (Ilex vomitoria, Ilex cassine). They consumed it from ritual vessels like these beakers.
University of New Mexico Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Patricia Crown, working with Thomas E. Emerson from the Illinois State Archeological Survey, Prairie Research Institute and University of Illinois, Champaign; Jiyan Gu and Timothy Ward from Keck Center for Instrumental and Biochemical Comparative Archaeology, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Millsaps College, Jackson, MS; W. Jeffrey Hurst at the Hershey Technical Center in Hershey PA; Timothy R. Pauketat from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana IL conducted the research, published on-line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
To conduct the study the interior part of the ceramic sherds were ground into a powder for analysis of absorbed organic residues. The researchers were searching for caffeine, theobromine and theophylline along with ursolic acid. The analysis was so sensitive that caffeine drinks were not allowed in the laboratory and technicians worked in protective clothing. Substance levels were measured in parts per billion. The beakers have been dated from 1050 A.D. through 1250 A.D. at the various sites.
In their paper the researchers note the ritual vessels or beakers were unknown in the greater Cahokia region before A.D, 1,000. They point out the beakers are a very small part of ceramics excavated from the area “attesting to their limited use as special serving dishes.”
The first Europeans who encountered the tribes in the southeastern part of what is now the United States noted that the local inhabitants parched holly leaves and small twigs, placed them in a large pot with water, boiled and agitated the liquid into a froth before drinking it. The researchers say “in many groups, Black Drink was a central part of ritual cleansing and purging of the body” and was combined with fasting and vomiting. The observers described men drinking Black Drink in great quantities, often before taking part in individual or community religious rituals, important political councils, ballgames or war parties.
This is the first actual scientific evidence of the use of Black Drink in the south central United States and the first demonstration that Black Drink was consumed prior to European Contact. The researchers say it documents the use of the plants far north of their natural habitats, implying some trade activity and suggests the beakers may have been created especially for their role in the ritual ceremonies featuring Black Drink.
The researchers say it also “bolsters earlier suggestions that Cahokia played an important role in the subsequent religious developments in the Southeast.” Similar holly drinks, such as yerba mate remain popular in South America.
Crown is known for her research into the caffeine habits of the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon. Her earlier research documented the use of chocolate drunk in ritual fashion between 1000 and 1125 A.D. in the Southwest. The Cahokia research was conducted as part of a larger study of cacao use funded by the National Science Foundation.
In a world where new ideas and new technologies assault the sense every hour of every day, it may be a little comforting to realize that beneath all the outward change and bustle, beneath all the gadgets, the more some things change, the more they stay the same.
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