Native Americans in the Southwest Really Liked Their Caffeine Buzz

Were pre-Hispanic Indians in the American Southwest getting ritually buzzed on caffeine? That's what some new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) suggests.

That caffeine would come not from the coffee plant, which hadn't been introduced to the continent in pre-Hispanic times, but from two plants native to the hemisphere, cacao and holly.  Cacao, from which chocolate is made, is featured in the creation myths of both the Aztecs and the Maya and has a well-known history of ritual use in Mesoamerican cultures.

Viewed as an intoxicating drink, chocolate was forbidden to women and children in ritual setting, and typically consumed only by elite males and royals. It would often be prepared for religious ceremonies, including an annual Aztec ceremony in Tenochtitlan that involved offerings to the cacao god of chocolate beverages, blood and the sacrifice of cacao-colored dogs, feathers and cacao seeds. Oh, and the sacrifice of a captured warrior.  

Both chocolate and holly are methylxanthine-based stimulants. The cacao in chocolate contains the methylxanthine theobromine, while holly contains both theobromine and the more familiar caffeine. The xanthines are known for their relatively mild stimulant effects, as well as for being bronchodilators.

In Ritual drinks in the pre-Hispanic US Southwest and Mexican Northwest, inspired by the discovery of cacao residues in ceramics at Pueblo Bonito, part of the Chaco Canyon Complex in New Mexico, a team of researchers led by Dr. Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico Department of Anthropology examined organic residues from drinking vessels in a series of archeological sites in the US Southwest and Mexican Northwest, an area known by archaeologists as the Southwest Culture zone.

The Southwest Culture Zone encompasses an area from southern Utah and Colorado on the north to Sonora and Chihuahua on the south, and from western Arizona to eastern New Mexico.  It's a region that's been inhabited continuously since 10,000 BC, and the researchers examined materials from sedentary farming villages occupied between AD 500 and 1450.

Based on mass spectrometric analysis of ceramic shards, what the researchers found was "widespread use of two different caffeinated plants, cacao and holly, as the basis for drinks used in communal, ritual gatherings" at the sites they examined.

What fascinated the researchers were the "implications for our understanding of distant resource acquisition and shared cultural practices in North America." Given that neither holly nor cacao grew in the Southwest Culture Zone (holly is found in the American Southeast, while cacao is found in southern Mexico), evidence of its use there suggests trade across hundreds of miles, as well as the diffusion of Mesoamerican cultural rituals.

But what may be fascinating to others is the notion of a bunch of Anasazi a thousand years ago getting ritually ripped on high-octane methylxanthines. It may not have been Starbucks on the mesa, but it looks like the desire for that familiar caffeine buzz goes way back in the high desert.

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