Articles

A RARE BLACK DRINK BOWL

 

Even the ancient American Indians wanted their morning caffeine jolt!

Many contemporary people like to drink caffeinated coffee in the morning.  It gives us an energy shot for assistance in our modern stress filled lives.  Our ancient predecessors, in the Southeast, also wanted the same wake-up call and they got it from a concoction brewed from the leaves of a native shrub or small tree called the Yaupon Holly or Ilex vomitoria.  This plant name, which was derived from the Catawba Indian word “yopun”, is a regional flora that grows in the coastal plains from Maryland southward to Florida and west into Texas.    And it produces leaves with natural caffeine and the Amerinds boiled these leaves of this verdure to make a brownish frothy liquid that they called “asi” or “cassina” or simply white drink.  The early European explorers, though, re-named the beverage Carolina Tea or by the name it commonly goes by today  -  black drink.

Caffeine, which is a bitter white alkaloid, stimulates the body to produce a heightened reaction time and it helps lessen fatigue.  The American natives, of the Historic, Proto-Historic and most likely the Prehistoric Periods, brewed and drank the caffeine laced liquid, especially before warfare and athletic contests.  Other plant fronds were boiled along with the yaupon holly to produce a powerful emetic potion which the aboriginals used to purge their bodily systems for religious/ceremonial purposes.  Their beliefs, in taking the black drink and vomiting repeatedly, was that it gave them magical and supernatural powers, cleansed them of sin and made them invincible in war.  The drink was consumed during many Indian rituals and festivals, especially the summer time Green Corn Ceremony or Busk, where it was swallowed in large quantities in order to purify their bodies for yearly renewal

The pottery vessel, pictured with this article, is basically a realistic effigy of the ovate toothed leaf of the Yaupon Holly.  It is made of grit tempered grey/brown ceramics and was found, many years ago, near the Wateree River in coastal South Carolina.   This 15 1/8” wide by 6 ¾” high shallow bowl could date perhaps as early as about AD 1200 or as late as maybe AD 1750 during what is known, today, as the Lamar Cultural period which was an off-shoot of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.   During those ancient years, native women would have parched the serrated edged holly leaves before boiling them in a large pot over an open fire and then transferring the libation into this presumably sacred black drink bowl.  The actual drinking of the potion was reserved strictly for males except on the rare occasions in which a female was the village leader.  The beverage would have been carried, by a village woman, to the principal chief or “miko” as well as clan elders and dominant warriors, who transferred the purgative liquid into conch shell cups before imbibing.  According to the early Spanish and French explorers in the Southeast, this custom of ingesting the black drink was an important part of Indian life.  It was normally only practiced by the older native men and seasoned warriors, who drank the potion each morning and then vomited it so as to cleanse their systems.  And this ceremonial exercise was conducted by Indians other than those living where the Yaupon holly plant normally grows.  This human nervous system stimulant was likely a significant trade item since evidence of black drink ceremonies have been found in many areas far removed inland from the southeast coastal plains.  The thoughts of partaking of the acrid black drink does not have any appeal to this writer but I am happy the ancient natives did so and made this yaupon holly effigy vessel – this beautiful and rare black drink bowl.

 

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