People living in southwest America and northwest Mexico over a thousand years ago were consuming highly caffeinated drinks, according to new findings published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. These drinks were likely quaffed during ceremonial occasions rather than on an everyday basis.
A team led by University of New Mexico’s Patricia Crown analyzed organic residues present in 177 ceramic samples – bits from jars, bowls, and pitchers – recovered from 18 sites in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Chihuahua in Mexico. The researchers made sure to include ceramic pieces (called potsherds or just sherds) from different time periods to see whether the practice was isolated or fairly constant.
Native American villagers living between southern Colorado and northern Chihuahua, they discovered, consumed caffeinated drinks beginning as early as A.D. 750 and extending to at least A.D. 1400. The team identified traces of caffeine, theobromine, and theophylline – all components of stimulants – in 40 of the sherds.
These were consumed in two types of drink: a cacao-based chocolate drink and something called “black drink” concocted from the leaves and twigs of yaupon holly. Previous work revealed that Mesoamericans, or people who lived between what’s now central Mexico and Central America, were enjoying caffeinated chocolate beverages 3,000 years ago, NPR reports. But this study is the first to find evidence of the holly drink in southwestern America and northwest Mexican.
Neither plant species – Theobroma cacao and Ilex vomitoria – grows in the area, and it’s unclear which trade routes were used. “I think the primary significance is that it shows that there was movement of two plants that have caffeine in North America – that they were either exchanged or acquired and consumed widely in the southwest,” Crown said in a statement.
The holly used to make black drink could have come from southern and southeastern states (from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas) or from parts of Chiapas and Veracruz in Mexico. And Mexico would have been the closest place for southwesterners to obtain cacao.