In the largest metropolis of what would become the United States, some residents occasionally consumed a “black drink” that was six times stronger than coffee — which could produce rather intense effects.
A team of researchers from Illinois, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania has found traces of the rich beverage in pottery beakers excavated from the site of Cahokia, a once-thriving settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.
The caffeinated drink was brewed from the leaves of the Yaupon holly, a species of holly tree that grew hundreds of miles away, the researchers say.
The discovery sheds light not only on how far the trading networks of ancient Cahokia reached, but also what great lengths its leaders would take to get their hands on their bevvy’s key ingredient.
Drinking the distillation of the leaves from the holly — known to scientists as Ilex vomitoria — can cause intense versions of the effects of caffeine, and its ingestion has often been associated with vomiting.
But Ilex vomitoria has often wrongly been described a purgative, because anthropologists believe was used in purification rituals, like before battle. They speculate that the tea might’ve been drunk quickly to intensify its effects, and that vomiting was often part of purification rites, but drinking tea made from the holly does not, in itself, induce vomiting.
Nonetheless, the practice of purging was not unique to Cahokia by any means.
Europeans recorded use of the “black drink” all over what’s now the Southeastern U.S. in colonial times, and the ritual use of spiked drinks has been documented as far back as the Maya, who used everything from emetic brews to chocolate enemas to induce hallucinations.
The discovery adds just a shade more data to the story of Cahokia, which — like so many other settlements farther west — was abandoned as mysteriously and suddenly as it was erected. During its peak years, from about 1100 to 1300 C.E., Cahokia was the largest settlement in North America outside of Mexico, and the larger area within its influence was home to some 50,000 people.
“This is a level of population density, a level of political organization that has not been seen before in North America,” said Thomas Emerson, a lead researcher involved in the discovery and director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, in a statement.
The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.