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Early Americans Went to Great Lengths to Get Caffeine

Pottery shards reveal 1,000-year-old traces of caffeine in places where it wasn’t readily available

1,000 years ago, Native Americans in the Southwest likely traded for cacao beans from far-away parts of Mexico and South America. (STELLA/imageBROKER/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Many people simply don't feel human without that cup of coffee in the morning — but how far would you go for a bit of caffeine? Probably not as far as people did 1,000 years ago. New analysis of pottery shards from the Southwest shows that people worked hard for a buzz, finding ways to obtain their fix even when they lived in places with no obvious source of caffeine.

The new study, the largest of its kind, looked at caffeine residue found on pottery retrieved from archaeological sites throughout the Southwest and Northern Mexico. Patricia Crown and her team used tools to remove small chunks of the shards, then ground them into a powder before using a liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry technique to figure out whether they contained traces of caffeine. (They even banned caffeine from the lab to prevent potential cross-contamination.)

The results were intriguing, says Crown in a release: 40 of the 177 samples revealed traces of caffeine. The shards show evidence of cacao-based chocolate drinks and something called “black drink,” a holly-derived, tea-like beverage. Since neither holly nor cacao is native to the Southwest, Crown believes the residue points to extensive trade routes with both the southeastern United States and Mexico or South America.

“Any Mesoamerican archaeologist that works on that time period is well aware of that phenomenon: increased trade, increased long-distance trade in more and more products,” anthropologist Janine Gasco tells NPR’s Murray Carpenter. She says that the find “builds the argument even further that there was this vibrant trade going on.”

Since caffeine traces were found on a variety of different types of pottery, the artifacts suggest a variety of ways to make, serve and drink caffeine. In the paper, the team suggests that some drinks were consumed individually, and others shared using straws, dippers or smaller vessels.

Unlike modern-day coffee freaks, though, the caffeine likely wasn’t used for an early morning pick-me-up. The need for caffeine meant that people who lived in areas without the means of getting their fix had to either travel to far-away locations or trade with people from other places, writes Crown and her team. This may have stimulated new trade relationships — and probably meant that caffeine was reserved for political get-togethers and religious rituals.

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