The Black Drink

Published on December 11, 2012 by Amy

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Black Drink
Black Drink

The black drink or white drink was a type of ritual beverage brewed by Native Americans in the Southeastern United States such as the Muscogee ássi. It is thought to have been prepared from the roasted leaves and stems of Ilex vomitoria (commonly known as Yaupon Holly) native to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, though it may also have been a concoction of other roots and herbs. Yaupon beverages, which have caffeine, were often used as a substitute for coffee and tea by colonists under the name cassine or cassina, the latter term derived from the Timucua name for I. vomitoria. The black drink may also have had emetic properties.

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Prior to the 19th century, the black drink was consumed during the daily deliberations of the village councils and at all other important council meetings. Caddo, Muscogee, Cherokee, Choctaw and others indigenous peoples of the Southeastern Woodlands drank it for purification. The black drink was prepared by special village officials and served in large communal cups, frequently made of whelk shell. Councils were served in order of the precedence of individuals present, starting with important visitors. They consumed large quantities and often followed by ritual vomiting.


According to the ethnohistorical record, the yaupon leaves and branches used for the black drink were picked as close to the time of its planned consumption as possible. After picking they were lightly parched in a ceramic container over fire. The roasting makes the caffeine soluble, which is the same reason coffee is also roasted. After browning, they were boiled in large containers of water until the liquid reached a dark brown or black color, giving it its name. The liquid was then strained into containers to cool, until it was cool enough to not scald the skin, and drunk while still hot. Because caffeine is 30 times more soluble in boiling water than room temperature water, this heightened its effect. It was then consumed in a ritual manner. Its physiological effects are mainly those of massive doses of caffeine. Three to six cups of strong coffee is equal to 0.5 to 1.0 grams of caffeine; the black drink could have delivered at least this much and possibly up to 3.0 to 6.0 grams of caffeine.

Precontact use

Archaeologists have demonstrated the use of the black drink among Native American groups stretching back far into antiquity, possibly dating to Late Archaic times. During the Hopewell period, the shell cups known from later black drink rituals become common in high status burials along with mortuary pottery and engraved stone and copper tablets. The significance of the shell cups may indicate the beginning of black drink ceremonialism. The fact that both the shells and the yaupon holly come from the same geographical location may indicate they were traded together in the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. The appearance of shell cups can be used as a virtual marker for the advent of Hopewell Culture in many instances. During the Mississippian culture period, the presence of items associated with the black drink ceremony had spread over most of the south, with many hundreds of examples from Etowah, Spiro, Moundville and Hiwassee Island.

Black drink at Cahokia

Archaeologists working at Cahokia, the largest Mississippian culture settlement located near the modern city of St. Louis, found distinctive and relatively rare pottery beakers dating from 1050 to 1250 CE. The beakers are small round pots with a handle on one side and a tiny lip on the opposing side. The surfaces of the unfired vessels was incised with motifs representing water and the underworld and resemble the whelk shells known to have been used for the consumption of the beverage during historic times. The inside of the vessels were found to be coated with a plant residue, which when tested was found to contain theobromine, caffeine and ursolic acid in the right proportions to have come from the ilex vomitoria. The presence of the black drink in the Greater Cahokia area at this early date pushes back definitive use of the black drink by several centuries. The presence of the black drink hundreds of miles outside of its natural range on the East and Gulf coasts is evidence of a substantial trade network with the southeast, a trade that also involved sharks teeth and whelk shells.

Shell cups

In historic accounts from the 16th and 17th century, black drink is usually imbibed in rituals using a cup made of marine shell. Three main species of marine shells have been identified as being used as cups for the black drink, lightning whelk, emperor helmet, and the horse conch. The most common was the lightning whelk, which has a left-handed or sinistral spiral. The left-handed spiral may have held religious significance because of its association with dance and ritual. The center columnella, which runs longitudinally down the shell, would be removed, and the rough edges sanded down to make a dipper like cup. The columnella would then be used as a pendant, a motif that shows up frequently in Southeastern Ceremonial Complex designs. In the archaeological record columnella pendants are usually found in conjunction with bi-lobed arrows, stone maces, earspools, and necklace beads(all of which are motifs identified with the falcon dancer/warrior/chunkey player mythological figure).[9] Artifacts made from these marine shells have been found as far north as Wisconsin and as far west as Oklahoma. Several examples of cups from Moundville and Spiro have been found to have rings of black residue in the bottoms, suggesting they were used for black drink rituals. Many examples of shell cups found in Mississippian mounds are engraved with S.E.C.C. imagery. A few examples portray what is theorized to be black drink rituals, including what some anthropologists have interpreted as may be vomit issuing from the mouths of mythological beings[4] but are more commonly seen symbols of singing.

Post-European contact

Many tribes across the Southeastern United States continue using the black drink long after the collapse of the Mississippian cultures. Muscogee Creeks, Cherokees, Choctaws, Ais, Guale, Chickasaws, Chitimacha, Timucua and many others are documented users of the drink. Although rituals vary amongst the different tribes, there are common traits which span most of the tribal variations. Black drink is most commonly drunk by men, who also prepare it.

In some ceremonies the drink, after its preparation, is passed out to the highest status person first, then the next highest status, and so forth. During each persons turn to drink, ritual songs were sung (Yahola, the ritual name Asi Yahola or Black Drink Singer is corrupted into English as Osceola).

The black drink is a purifier, that removes spiritual and physical contamination from the drinker, and as such is never taken casually, even when taken daily. Some tribes practice ritual vomiting after its consumption, possibly to heighten its purgative and purifying powers, by expelling contamination from the body. The sharing of tobacco is also a part of the ritual.


In 1696, Jonathan Dickinson witnessed the use of a beverage brewed from the Yaupon Holly among the Ais of Florida. Dickinson later learned that the Spanish called the plant casseena. The Ais parched the leaves in a pot, and then boiled them. The resulting liquid was then transferred to a large bowl using a gourd that had a long neck with a small hole at the top, and a 2-inch-wide (51 mm) hole in the side. The gourd was slowly dipped into the brewing pot, which caused a whistling sound as air was forced out through the small hole at the top. The gourd was used to froth the liquid (Dickinson does not specify how). The brewed liquid was a deep brown in color. On the occasion Dickinson witnessed, he estimated that there was nearly three gallons of the beverage in the bowl. After the liquid had cooled, the chief was presented with a conch-shell of the beverage. The chief threw part of it on the ground and drank the rest. The chief’s associates were then served in turn. Lower status men, women and children were not allowed to touch or taste the beverage. The chief and his associates sat drinking this brew, smoking and talking for most of the day. In the evening the bowl that had held the beverage was covered with a skin to make a drum. The Ais, accompanied by the drum and some rattles, sang and danced until the middle of the night. Dickinson makes no mention of purging or vomiting by the Ais after drinking this beverage.


Cherokee black drink is taken for purification and renewal at stomp dances, Green Corn ceremony, and other ceremonies. Made with Ilex vomitoria, the black drink reportedly induces vomiting during Cherokee purification ceremonies but, as explained above, this behavior is deliberate or the result of the quantity imbibed, not due to the chemical properties of the drink itself. Other ritual medicinal beverages are also used in ceremonies in Oklahoma.


Among the Timucua, the black drink (called cacina by the Spanish) was consumed daily. Preparation and consumption of the drink was strictly limited to the community council house. Women (other than an occasional female chief) were normally excluded from the council house except for activities such as dances, but did prepare the cacina. In 1678 a bedridden cacica (a female chief) was given permission to brew and consume cacina in her house, on the condition that no one else could be present while she did so.

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