Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Cahokia caffeine

 
When I saw Cahokia Mounds in the weird news this morning, I jumped on it because I have been there. The Native American archaeological site is located in Collinsville, Illinois, the state in which I grew up. When the complex was occupied from 700-1200 A.D. (pop. 10,000-20,000), it consisted of 120 earthen mounds formed basketful-by-basketful over an area of 6 sq. mi. Only 80 of the mounds remain today and I walked across the largest of these - Monks Mound (2nd image) - as a teenager. Excavation at Cahokia began in the early 20th c., but its importance was known - if not appreciated - a century earlier. Lawyer and amateur historian Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816) wrote in 1811. "I was struck with a degree of astonishment, not unlike that which is experienced in contemplating the Egyptian pyramids. What a stupendous pile of earth! To heap up such a mass must have required years, and the labors of thousands."  Excavated in earnest since the 1960s, the pile of earth has continued to offer up secrets, including ritual human sacrifice. Most recently archaeologists have analyzed plant residues in 8 unearthed mug-shaped pottery beakers (1st image) to determine that the area's Native Americans consumed a caffeinated drink. It was said by Europeans to taste like tea, but was brewed from leaves of the Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). And the scientific name of that plant contains a clue: because drinking large quantities of the so-called "black drink" caused vomiting, it was used ritually by participants in war parties, religious ceremonies, and important political councils to purify themselves. The researchers have revealed that the hot drink was consumed at Cahokia in 1050 A.D. from vessels bearing symbols of water and the underworld and contemporary with a series of sophisticated carved figurines representing the underworld, agricultural fertility, and life-renewal. Researcher Thomas Emerson, director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, explains, "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."
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