The Native American site of Cahokia, the central settlement of a large polity on the Mississippi river floodplain near present-day St. Louis, supported up to 13,000 people at its peak, making it the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. The inhabitants of Cahokia evidently had extensive trade networks (pdf link), with marine shells and shark’s teeth from the gulf coast; volcanic mica; and copper from the Great Lakes, all found at the central complex.
|The natural range of two species of holly used to prepare|
cassina. The inset shows the several settlement sites which
which are associated with the Cahokia complex.
Source: Crown et al. (PNAS, 2012)
A recent paper in PNAS suggests that the exchange with coastal tribes was not limited to durable goods. Chemical analyses of residues in ritual vessels from Cahokia have found evidence for preparation of cassina, or Black Drink, a ritual drink resembling tea which was prepared from leaves and twigs of holly trees. The species of holly used to prepare cassina grew far to the south of the Cahokia complex, with the nearest sources in Arkansas more than 550 km away. Consumption of this drink at Cahokia suggests, at a minimum, regular trading contact over these long distances. Also, cassina was part of an entire cultural package, including special vessels for its preparation and drinking. Cahokia’s central position on the Mississippi may have been part of the spread of this ritual culture along the Mississippi watershed and beyond. Finally, the Cahokia vessels are the oldest for which boiled holly residues have been detected. This suggests the cassina culture might have even older roots along the Gulf coast.