Thousand-Year-Old Dirty Tea Cups Suggest Ancient City Had Far-Reaching Influence

By Sophie Bushwick | August 8, 2012 1:11 pm

beakers
Beakers found at Cahokia in the Midwest contain
traces of tea from the southeast

Some teas are not as soothing as others. “Black drink,” brewed from the holly Ilex vomitoria by Native Americans on what is now the southeastern coast of the United States, had the lovely side effect of inducing vomiting (though perhaps from ingredients other than the holly) and was a key part of a 16th-century religious purification ritual, according to European accounts. Researchers were recently surprised to learn, however, that it also seems to have traveled quite a bit: traces of black drink have now been found over 200 miles out of Ilex vomitoria’s coastal range at the site of Cahokia, an ancient city near modern-day St. Louis.

The inhabitants of Cahokia disappeared long before Europeans first recorded the presence of black drink in the southeast. But in the first few centuries after 1000 AD, the city was a thriving metropolis with a population that reached 15,000 and whose influence was felt for hundreds of miles around. Fragments of ceramic beakers from this period contain dark residues that researchers initially assumed came from chocolate, and chemical analysis of the traces revealed caffeine and theobromine, which are components of chocolate. But it also revealed ursolic acid, which is not.

Holly, on the other hand, does contain all three chemicals, and the ratio of caffeine to theobromine in the beverage residues matches the ratio in black drink. Though holly isn’t native to the area, it may have arrived in Cahokia through an extensive trade network, the researchers believe.

The fine Cahokian beakers containing traces of black drink were found near ritual gathering places, which suggests that the tea was being used in religious ceremonies as early as 1050 AD. In fact, it’s possible that the ritual that the Europeans observed in the 1500s may have been invented in Cahokia, and continued to be practiced on the coast long after the city disappeared.

Image courtesy of Linda Alexander / Illinois State Archaeological Survey

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins
  • Gabriela

    cool!

  • Dean

    Despite its species name, Ilex vomitoria, commonly known as Yaupon Holly, does not induce vomiting. Europeans observed Indians drinking tea made from it in the Southeast, where it was a sort of hospitality drink, and saw its drinkers vomiting, but the vomiting was either ritually self-induced as part of a cleansing ritual or because of other ingredients added. Tea made from the holly actually became popular among Europeans under the name Cassina Tea, until it was eclipsed by coffee and Chinese tea in the early twentieth century. I have tried Yaupon tea on several occasions and it resembles in taste and in caffeine content another holly drink, Yerba Mate from southern South America, which is made from Ilex paraguariensis.

    • Veronique Greenwood

      Dean, nice catch–I’ve clarified the text. Thanks!

  • timbebinder

    I read in the text The Southeastern Indians by Charles Hudson that vomiting may have been caused by simply drinking too much fluid too quickly, independent of the fact that that fluid happened to be the black drink. The same phenomenon is the basis of the One Gallon Challenge game, where people race to drink a gallon of milk in under an hour. The latter is a game everyone owes it to themselves to play at least once.

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