August 7, 2012

Ritual Use Of ‘Black Drink’ At Cahokia Evidence Of Ancient Native Trade Network

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

European explorers roaming through the American southeast in the late 1600's wrote of native purification rituals that involved dancing, vomiting and a 'black drink' in shell cups. Spanish, English, and French explorers, merchants, travelers, priests, and naturalists described its use among groups from southern Virginia to west of the Mississippi, according to the University of Iowa's Medical Museum.

Recent evidence found at the site of Cahokia, a massive settlement near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, shows people using the black drink nearly 500 years earlier than these accounts, making it the earliest known use of this drink in North America. The discovery was made by analyzing plant residues found in pottery beakers.

Brewed from the leaves and twigs of the Ilex vomitoria, or Yaupon holly, the drink was highly caffeinated, more than six times that of strong coffee, and used for ritual purification. The twist, though, is that the Yaupon holly grows hundreds of miles away, on the Gulf Coast. These findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, add evidence that a broad cultural and trade network thrived in the Midwest and southwestern U.S. as early as A.D. 1050.

"This finding brings to us a whole wide spectrum of religious and symbolic behavior at Cahokia that we could only speculate about in the past," said Thomas Emerson, the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey and a collaborator on the study.

Cahokia, which included settlements in modern day St. Louis, East St. Louis and the five counties surrounding, was a city with as many as 50,000 residents during its heyday, making it the largest prehistoric settlement in North American north of Mexico. According to archeological evidence, Cahokia was inhabited from A.D. 700 to 1400, with the peak of its influence at around A.D. 1050 to 1200. By 1400, for no known reason, the site was abandoned, leaving behind over 120 ceremonial mounds spanning both sides of the Mississippi River.

Greater Cahokia appears to have been a crossroads of people and cultural influences. The presence of the black drink there is evidence of a substantial trade network with the southeast.

"I would argue that it was the first pan-Indian city in North America, because there are both widespread contacts and emigrants," Emerson said. "The evidence from artifacts indicates that people from a broad region (what is now the Midwest and southeast U.S.) were in contact with Cahokia. This is a level of population density, a level of political organization that has not been seen before in North America."

University of New Mexico anthropology professor Patricia Crown, and Hershey Foods Technical Center chemist and chocolate expert Jeffrey Hurst conducted the chemical analysis. Inspired in part by a similar study they led in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the team analyzed plant residues on the Cahokian beakers.

Different groups of people used the black drink for different purposes, but for most it was a key component of purification rituals before battle or other important events. The high caffeine content induced sweating, and rapid consumption of large quantities allowed men to vomit, an important part of the ritual cleansing.

At approximately the same time as the use of the black drink, a series of sophisticated figurines representing agricultural fertility, the underworld and life-renewal were carved from local pipestone. Most of these figurines were found at temple sites.

The beakers, too, appear to be a Cahokia invention. They look like single-serving, cylindrical pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the other. Many are carved with symbols representing water and the underworld and are reminiscent of the whelk shells used in black drink ceremonies (recorded hundreds of years later) in the southeast, where the Yaupon holly grows.

"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," Emerson said.

Because the pots were distinctive and fairly rare, the researchers chose to look for evidence of the black drink. The team found key biochemical markers — theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid — in the right proportions in each of the eight beakers they tested. The beakers range in date from A.D. 1050 to 1250 and were found at various ritual sites around Cahokia.

Cahokia was ultimately a failed experiment. The carving of figurines and the mound building there came to an abrupt end, and the population dwindled to zero. But its influence carried on. Cahokian influences in art, religion and architecture are seen as far away as Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Wisconsin.