Evidence that Americans have been obsessed with caffeine for 1,000 years

Nearly 1,000 years ago, the peoples of the ancient city Cahokia lived on the banks of what is today called the Mississippi River. Today, new research suggests these people were ritualistically imbibing the "Black Drink", a hot, super-caffeinated beverage that did a lot more than make you alert.

Black Drink is a brew associated with Native American populations, both pre- and post-contact. Brewed from Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), it's from the same genus as the more well-known yerba mate and ayahuasca plants. The drinks are all made from leaves that you roast, then boil, in order extract the caffeine. However, as you might have gathered from its Latin name, Black Drink has a reputation as an emetic too.

Evidence that Americans have been obsessed with caffeine for 1,000 yearsS

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team of archaeologists reveal that the first known uses of Black Drink occurred much earlier than we realized — and in a very unexpected region of the Americas. A group of archaeologists analyzed pottery beakers from Cahokia, an immense pre-Columbian city near the meeting of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which held 50,000 residents at its peak. Through chemical analysis of residues on these very specific beakers, they found a telltale blend of theobromine, caffeine, and ursolic acid, which point to the Yaupon holly.

These beakers from Cahokia are much older than any previous examples of the Black Drink, and very, very far away from the plant's natural habitat. This pushes the earliest known use of Black Drink as early as 1050 CE, and at least 500 years before any previous evidence. Cahokia is also hundreds of miles north of where the plant naturally grows, indicating a substantial trade network to get it there.

Historical accounts of the stuff indicate that the leaves and twigs were parched then boiled into a black liquid (hence the name), and then consumed in great quantities to induce ritualistic vomiting and cleansing. It's not clear if that's what it was used for in Cahokia, but these vessels existed at the same time as a fertility/life-renewal religion, and it's thought the two are linked.

The Black Drink is estimated to have had as much as six times the caffeine as coffee, and it's unclear if the vomiting was a direct result of the drink, or simply the huge amounts of it imbibed.

Image by L. Brian Stauffer