Caffeine Junkies of the Lost Metropolis

Wired (suitably enough) gets all hepped up over traces of a prehistoric Starbucks in Cahokia:

In a new study, researchers have found the first direct evidence of black drink — not in shells from Florida or Mississippi, but in ceramic beakers at the ancient city of Cahokia outside what’s now St. Louis, Missouri. The finding hints at a trade network that flourished centuries before Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, in which caffeinated drinks had Starbucks-like importance and possibly religious significance.

We’ve mentioned Cahokia before in these pages. It was a huge, thriving city that faded away about 100 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola. And, we now know, it had some kind of trade in goods from hundreds of miles away – specifically black drink, made from yaupon holly and the origin of Seminole leader Osceola’s name (literally, “black drink shouter”).

Osceola lived in Florida, where yaupon holly grows. Cahokia was outside what’s now St. Louis.

Archaeologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and her colleagues were analyzing fragments of these beakers sent by Thomas Emerson and Timothy Pauketat, two archaeologists from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who were working at Cahokia. The beakers contained residues presumed to be chocolate — a prized drink that made its way up from Central America. But although the chemical signatures showed traces of caffeine, they didn’t match up with those of cacao, chocolate’s main ingredient. The Cahokia team wondered whether the beakers had contained black drink instead. Since shell cups like those in the southeast had been found in Cahokia, some archeologists suspected that traders might have brought the purifying brew to the city as well. But because holly leaves don’t survive to be found in archaeological digs, and analytical methods couldn’t distinguish among sources of caffeine, it wasn’t clear just what the Cahokians had been drinking.

To find out, Crown teamed up with biochemist and chocolate expert W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Foods Technical Center in Pennsylvania. Hurst had previously identified a chemical called theobromine that is found in chocolate. Research had also shown that holly plants contain a compound called ursolic acid, which isn’t found in chocolate.

Whether the Cahokians used black drink ritually isn’t known, but its appearance in fine-quality beakers suggests it was highly prized, if not sacred.

[via Ms Trelles]