The Significance of the Black Drink in Cahokian Life

Presently packaged and sold by major tea companies like Harney & Sons, the consumption of Yaupon actually dates back to as early as 1050 A.D. Yaupon grows in the form of a shrub or small tree and is native in states from southern Virginia to Florida and in southeast Oklahoma and central Texas (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center 2016). Evidence of the Yaupon plant was also found in Cahokia. More specifically, traces of the ceremonial “Black Drink” were discovered in Cahokian drinking vessels. This beverage was prepared by various Native American tribes in the southeast through the toasting and boiling of Yaupon leaves. While we may assume that this beverage was consumed in quantities resembling that of coffee and tea, this was unlikely to be the case. Yaupon is the only plant native to North America that contains caffeine and the Black Drink could contain about six times more caffeine than a typical cup of coffee (Maugh II 2012). Furthermore, as the plant was not native to Cahokia, it would’ve been difficult for trade to support daily consumption. 

Figure 1. Close-up image of the Yaupon Holly photographed by Joseph A. Marcus in 2003 for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s plant database.

Further supporting the hypothesis that the Black Drink was utilized for special, ceremonial purposes were the forms of drinking vessels present at Cahokia. The shell cups and beakers that were known to hold the Black Drink in purification and religious ceremonies in other parts of the continent were also found in Cahokia. This reinforces evidence that suggests the presence of a life-renewal cult in Cahokia that included these ceremonies and that the beakers could’ve been included in religious packages with other items, as they spread up the Illinois river Valley and into Wisconsin (Crown et al., 2012). In terms of rituals and in relation to its scientific name—ilex vomitoria—Yaupon was used to induce vomiting. Prior to battle or other major events, the Black Drink would be consumed in large quantities to ultimately purge and purify the body. Additionally, the drink was used for less physically taxing purposes. The drink would be consumed for decision-making purposes, as it was believed to have positive psychological effects, such as clearer thought and increased reaction time. These decisions could’ve determined the winner of stickball, or even the victor of war (Ellison 2009). 

Figure 2. Some of the beakers found in Cahokia. Photograph by Linda Alexander (Crown et, al. 2012).

The Black Drink was more than just a beverage—it was a method for purification and clarity. Therefore, while residue of the Black Drink in Cahokia may seem insignificant at first, it provides insight into the nature of activities that could’ve taken place in the city and represents their connection to other regions. 



Crown, Patricia L., Thomas E. Emerson, Jiyan Gu, Timothy Ward, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Timothy R. Pauketat. “Ritual Black Drink Consumption at Cahokia .” PNAS, August 6, 2012. 

Ellison, George. “Yaupon and the ‘Black Drink’.” Smoky Mountain News, May 29, 2009.,roasted%20for%20the%20same%20reason. 

“Ilex Vomitoria” Plant Database – Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, April 2, 2016. 

Maugh II, Thomas H. “Cahokia People Had Caffeine Drink Made from Holly 900 Years Ago.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2012.,caffeine%20content%20of%20modern%20coffee.&text=The%20native%20Americans%20used%20it,before%20important%20events%20or%20battles. 

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1 thought on “The Significance of the Black Drink in Cahokian Life

  1. What evidence is there for the life-renewal cult in Cahokia? How do we know what specific rituals were conducted, and if the drink was used to induce vomiting?

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