From suburbia to cities across the globe, caffeine and wine are often a source of collective comfort: the first for a morning pick-me-up, the latter to unwind. Now a Wichita State University professor has discovered evidence to suggest that even our ancient ancestors enjoyed these drinks.
From six different excavations across central Texas, Dr. Crystal Dozier, assistant professor of anthropology, found pottery with evidence of caffeinated beverages, as well as succinic and tartaric acid, which are associated with grape wine.
“I was looking at pottery from right before the Spanish came to Texas,” Dozier said. “What's really interesting about this time period is that for the first time in this region, we see pottery. That’s not to say that people didn't know how to make pottery, but these were hunters and gatherers, so they're picking up and moving every two weeks. They're not practicing agriculture, but they take the time to make pottery, which you have to build and then schlepp around, which is a really high-investment thing to do. I was really curious about why it was so important to them to start making the pottery.”
The paper about Dozier's research was published in the August issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Dozier ground up 54 pieces of pottery — roughly ranging from 500 to 700 years old — to find the chemical markers she’d identified for caffeine and grape wine. The beverages, she said, were likely used in ceremonies or celebrations.
“I noticed that some pottery only showed up at these really large sites, where you also see exchange goods at these large sites or gathering places. I use the term feasting sites,” she said. “You see across the world and throughout time that a feast or party often highlights some kind of liquid medium to help celebrate.”
The caffeine signatures could be one of two possible sources, Dozier said.
“It could be black drink, which is yaupon holly. You can make a tea out of it that has a similar caffeine level to green tea, and this black drink was widely recorded throughout the southeast,” she said.
The other option, though less probable, could be cacao, or chocolate.
“I think this is a less likely option just because we're so far from Mexico, where it would have been grown. That being said, we know that trade networks extended into the southeast and New Mexico, so it is possible that it also extended into Texas,” Dozier said.
Dozier said the caffeine discovery is significant because it’s the first archaeological evidence for caffeinated beverages in the region.
The grape wine findings did not have repeated signatures, meaning each ceramic in which the signature was found was only found in one of three trials , “but it's the first kind of, what I would call a suggestion, that could be possible uses of red wine before the Europeans were here.”
Dozier said she plans to return to further research the grape wine findings.
“Our findings were not super secure in that I didn't have repeat identifications like I did in the caffeine signatures. This is probably because the biomarkers I picked are extremely sensitive and water soluble, so they tend erode away,” she said. “There are other biomarkers. There are other signatures I can look forward to confirming that there was or was not grape wine being produced.”
Dozier said the grape wine discovery could combat a common stereotype of indigenous people in the United States — “the idea that Native Americans didn't have alcohol until the Europeans arrived, and therefore they just went hog wild. It’s a stereotype, and it's really damaging — this idea that somehow there is a biological reason why Native Americans deal with alcoholism.”
Rather, she says, the rate of alcohol abuse among Native Americans is similar to the rate among any economically depressed group of people in the United States.
“Native Americans were making and likely consuming alcohol prior to European colonizers. The effects that we see in the modern era have much more to do with colonialism and poverty than it has to do with the history of making alcoholic drinks,” Dozier said.
Archeology is key to understanding indigenous cultures.
“I really hope that this research inspires us to look into other Native American archaeological cultures looking for these kinds of food practices that aren't recorded in the historical literature or in the ethnographic literature. We only know what people were maybe doing if we look archaeologically,” Dozier said.
The research techniques from this research could inform future investigations at Etzanoa, the excavation site run by the archeology department at Wichita State.
“I want to use the same kind of research methodology for our established projects here at Wichita State so I can use the same technique to investigate what was being cooked on the pottery at Etzanoa,” Dozier said. “It would be very interesting to know if particularly the use of yaupon holly extending this far north because the plants only grow here under certain circumstances. It would really show that people were curating and growing this as a plant for this purpose.”