Residents of Ancient Cahokia Settlement Drank Black Beverage That Made Them Vomit

Posted on August 15, 2012

Cahokia Black Drink Vessel


Researchers from the University of Illinois have discovered that people living in 700 to 900 years ago in Cahokia, a massive prehistoric North American settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, drank a strong black beverage that made them vomit. The drink, used in rituals, was a caffeinated brew made from the leaves of a holly tree that grew hundreds of miles away. The researchers say the distance between the drink and the ingredients is evidence of a substantial trade network with the southeast. The beverage was drank from vessels like the one pictured above.

Europeans were the first to record the use of what they called "the black drink" by Native American men in the southeast. This caffeinated drink is a dark tea made from the roasted leaves of the Yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria). 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.

The drink had a very high caffeine content. According to some estimates, the caffeine content in the black drink was as much as six times that of strong coffee. The drink induced sweating. Rapid consumption of large quantities of the hot drink caused men to vomit, which was an important part of purification rituals in Cahokia.

The researchers say that 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.

Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and a collaborator on the study, says, "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."

Photo: L. Brian Stauffer