Archaeologists Date

CAHOKIA, Ill.

Archeologists have direct evidence that pre-Columbian tribes drank a form of tea centuries before the Americas were discovered by European settlers.

The caffeinated, tea-like beverage was known as “black drink” made from the holly bush and containing theobromine and ursolic acid.

Patricia L. Crown, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, is the lead author of a report this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cups of porous clay containing the residue were found at Cahokia, Ill., a town near St. Louis, Mo., that in ancient times was the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. At its peak, it housed 15,000 residents but was abandoned by the 1300s.

Crown dates the cups containing “black drink” to A.D. 1050. The latest  in 1250.

The New York Timesreported that Indian men consumed large portions of black drink brewed from toasted holly leaves and bark and boiled it in water. Then they would go off to vomit. Whether this was the effect of the drink or was self-induced is not clear; anyway, the practice was a ritual purification in preparation for important community undertakings like religious ceremonies, political councils or ballgames and war.

Two holly species, Ilex vomitoria and Ilex cassine, have approximately the same chemical mix, although the researchers wrote that only I. vomitoria was used in the drink, “an argument bolstered by the considerably higher amount of caffeine” in it, according to the report in the Times.

Since the holly grew in coastal areas several hundred miles to the south, Dr. Crown said, the findings are strong evidence that a wide trading network existed among distant tribes and that ritual practices at Cahokia may have influenced their subsequent activities over a wide region.

Source: New York Times

Image courtesy of  Illinois State Archaeological Survey

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