Articles

The Black Drink Cup

Christmas Berry Tea;  Evergreen Cassine;  Emetic Holly;  South-Sea Tea;  Coon Berry;  Cassina;  Aplachine; Blue Holly;  These are all names used by various peoples at various times during the last few hundred years for the shrub Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitaria) and the drink made from it’s leaves and twigs.  The American Indians in the Southeast USA used the name “asi” which meant white drink but it now has become known for the name commonly used by the early European explorers – Black Drink.

The leaves of the Yaupon Holly are unique because they naturally contain caffeine.  The plant traditionally grew, and still grows, along the Coastal Plains in the Southeastern states and in some cases was cultivated inland by some Indian groups.  Archaeologically it is believed that the natives used the plant leaves and twigs to make the diuretic liquid perhaps as far back in time as the Late Archaic Period or 3,000 BC.  It was certainly being made during the Historic Period (AD 1500-1800) based on the many reports from Spanish, French and English adventurers.  The natives used this purgative beverage to clear the body of contaminations and evil and also simply as a caffeine laced drink to heighten the person’s senses. 

The small toothed leaves and twigs of this plant were gathered and dry roasted in ceramic vessels (and after trading began with the Europeans in iron kettles and skillets) after which the plant material was boiled in water to produce the desired brown frothy liquid.  It was forbidden for women, children and lower status men to have any access to the raw materials or the finished beverage because it was considered too powerful for them.  After the leaves and twigs had boiled for the prescribed time period, the liquid was allowed to cool slightly and was then poured into smaller ceramic pots and taken to the conclave of high status men where it was poured into cups from which the assembled group drank.  Any visitors were served first followed by the principal chief and on to the other men beginning with the highest status ones and working downward.  This was apparently done almost on a daily basis for their caffeine jolt before any discussions were made about village or society business.  Black drink was also taken in large quantities of multiple quarts per participant before peace treaties, warfare or ball games.  The drinker after ingesting the liquid would fiercely grasp his stomach area and expel vomit from his mouth thus cleansing the bodily system.  The bitter white alkaloid caffeine stimulated the body to produce heightened reaction times and it also helped to lessen fatigue.  During certain festivals and rituals, especially the Green Corn Ceremony, the natives consumed huge amounts of the black drink in order to purify their bodies for the yearly renewal.  They apparently believed that drinking the purgative and then vomiting repeatedly gave them supernatural and magical powers, cleansed them of sin and made them invincible in war.  Some of the Cherokee Indians cultivated the holly in their mountain regions but for most of the natives, the only way to get the leaves was through trade.  And this trading system certainly must have occurred since evidence has been found of the use of black drink by natives who lived hundreds of miles from the Coastal Plains.

But not all the trading was just in the holly leaves.  According to early European accounts, the natives drank the black drink from marine shell cups.  The shells used were primarily the horse conch, emperor helmet and lightning whelk.  The natural shells would have been modified by cutting away a large portion of the outside whorl thus leaving a bowl like cavity.  The columella or central core would have then been severed near the apex of the shell and entirely removed from within the mollusk hull.  This columella could have then been cut into pieces for beads or polished and drilled and made into a pendant.  In the larger Mississippian and Historic Period villages, some of these imbibing cups were polished and incised with various cult designs on the exterior surfaces but most were left plain or unadorned.  One must wonder just why the natives chose to alter these very hard shells into drinking cups when they could easily have made ceramic bowls for the same purpose.  Since the shells, like the holly leaves, came from the coastal regions, perhaps together that had some ceremonial significance in their usage.  Whatever the reasons for why the natives chose to use the calcium carbonate shells will most likely forever be unknown.  What is known is that they did make their beverage containers from the marine gastropod dwellings and used these odd liquid holders as the rare and unusual black drink cups.

 

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