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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Understanding Past Societies: Ethnoarchaeology in the Makran Sefidkuh Region

In order to truly understand the past, it is necessary to determine the social nature of early societies. A prime field of study that aids in this analysis is ethnoarchaeology. Ethnoarchaeology examines experiences, artifacts, and any existing structures in present, living societies to draw inferences about the past. This study also requires the archeologist to ask questions that go beyond what is apparent in archaeological records (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 143-148). 

As archaeologists are always looking to learn more about the past, there are constantly new discoveries being made around the world. Over the past few years, the Makran Sefidkuh mountains of the Baluchistan region of Iran have been analyzed using ethnoarchaeology. In 2016, Hossein Vahedi began conducting an archeological survey on the region as part of his thesis at Shahrekord University. Later, he continued his work and began an ethnoarchaeological project through the Public Relations Institute of Cultural Heritage and Tourism. The goal of the ethnoarchaeological project was to survey the living communities in the ​​Makran Sefidkuh region and to identify settlement continuity patterns. Having a combination of desert and mountain climates, along with the Paleolithic, Chalcolithic, and Islamic cultures present, the Sefidkuh area was especially interesting to the archaeologist (Vahedi 2020).

Figure 1. Map created to show the region being surveyed (Vahedi 2020).

Within the mountain region, 12 current settlements were identified. Some of the present buildings are circular, and some are ovular. They were constructed out of various materials, primarily mud and stone. A survey of the region revealed items such as pottery fragments, circular gravestones, and Islamic glass bracelets and cemeteries. The circular gravestones resemble that of those discovered in Oman and Pakistan. Due to the proximity of Sefidkuh to these countries, it is speculated that it was a major area of trade between the Baluchistan and Sistan communities and the Persian Gulf’s smaller, southern communities. Supporting this theory is that the pottery found was one of the Baluchistan’s special index potteries, Londo. Londo pottery has been found in Fras, Pakistan, and other sites, for it is one of the most substantial pottery groups in the Makran region and neighboring areas (Heritage Daily 2020). Additionally, it is believed because of the seemingly permanent settlements, yet strategic significance of the location for trade, that Sefidkuh has been home to many groups of semi-sedentary nomadic people (Heritage Daily 2020). This would imply that the inhabitants of the region were mostly mobile, but also lived in these permanent settlements for at least some of the year. 

Figure 2. One of the circular houses in the region (Vahedi 2020).

Although the specifics of the past communities in Sefidkuh are yet to be identified, it is the study of ethnoarchaeology that allows for the societal mysteries of the past to be uncovered using what is available today. Without this methodology, our understanding of the present day Baluchistan region would just be basic knowledge of archeological finds, there wouldn’t be as much interpretation of its predecessors. 



Heritage Daily. “Archaeological Survey and Ethnoarchaeological Studies in Sefidkuh of Makran, Iran.” HeritageDaily, May 13, 2020. 

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

Vahedi, Hossein. “Ane Today – 202008 – the First Archaeological and Ethnoarchaeological Survey Project in the Sefidkuh Makran Mountains of Baluchistan.” American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR), August 21, 2020. 

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