April 17, 2005

The Black Drink


Ever wonder how prehistoric man survived without coffee? Millions of Americans depend on a morning cup of coffee to jump-start their day. Florida’s own Timucua Indians had something just as good – the Black Drink. It came from a plant called Yaupon Holly, in Latin – Ilex vomitoria. How could a plant with a name like that rival modern coffee?

Yaupon holly is one of the few plants native to North America that contains the all important ingredient: caffeine. This is concentrated in the leaves when they are first growing in the spring. The Timucuas collected these leaves and roasted them (as we roast coffee beans today) to increase the caffeine’s solubility in hot water. Yaupon usually grows in coastal areas, so local Timucuas traded the leaves inland for valuables including chert (raw material for projectile points) and clay (raw material for pottery). 

Yaupon provided more than just trade value. Due to its chemical properties, it served an important cultural role. Caffeine is a diuretic; it helps you sweat. In the Timucua belief structure, this sweating allowed the drinker to remove physical and spiritual impurities from his system. Only adult men could partake of the black drink. These men sipped at the black drink in morning gatherings while they discussed things of importance. Sound familiar?

But there were other uses of the black drink that stemmed from its emetic properties. If you drink several cups of any hot liquid quickly, especially a caffeinated hot liquid, you’re going to get sick. The Timucuas used this as an extreme form of purification. If the men were going on a very important hunt or to battle, they needed a lot of luck. Finding luck required them to be ritually pure. So the men chugged the black drink and vomited profusely or struggled to hold it down. . After that, they were so wired from the caffeine that they often succeeded in their endeavors. Would three cups of coffee before a big presentation work the same magic for us?

This evergreen holly tree is widespread in coastal Florida. Its tiny wavy-edged leaves and red berries make it a popular choice as an ornamental.

Food & Dyes & Medicine
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