The Amerindians of the Great Northwest and beer.Article 17 of 18 Conclusions and bibliography.

The psychotropic plants and the Amerindian beers in North America.


Have psychotropic plants replaced fermented beverages in North America to support ceremonies, collective celebrations, rituals and daily events? If so, for what reasons and according to what socio-cultural mechanisms?

The list of psychotropic plants used in North America for more than a thousand years is long: from tobacco to sumac, from highly caffeinated and vomiting plants such as Ilex vomitoria or cocoa (the bean but also the fermented pulp), to peyote and datura roots.

Almost all North American Amerindian peoples use psychotropic plants, a tradition older than the 16th century[1]. Unfortunately, European texts dating back the first contacts rarely explain the use of psychotropic drugs and the underlying beliefs. Consequently, this understanding, devoid of any historical dimension, extrapolates from modern observations.  Speculations on shamanism, natural medicine and Indian spirituality present the religious behaviours of the Amerindians wrapped in primitivism. The description of these so-called 'natural' religions oscillates between a negative pole (beliefs and superstitions of the Savages) and a positive pole (authentic connection with natural forces). These speculations reflect the shifts in opinion within the White American society regarding the disappearance of Native American cultures. They tell us nothing about the Native American social structures and their history.

The European classifications dividing fermented beverages and psychotropic plants do not match the Ameridians' uses. Wherever they brew beer, they add plants that reinforce and modify the often moderate effects of low-alcohol beer. A non-exhaustive list in addition to the plants already mentioned: "crazy medicine" (root of Lotus Wrightii), "make noise" (Cassia Couesii root), "medicine sticks" and aromatic root or roasted seeds of Canotia holocantha. The White Mountain Apache sometimes add the roots of Datura meteloides and other plants to their tulapa beer. The list of stimulating or psychotropic plants added by the Amerindians to their beers is very long and the expected effects can vary significantly (Yanovsky 1936). The antagonistic categories beer OR psychotropic drugs are in fact irrelevant. North Amerindians discovered caffeine long before Europeans “discovered” North America.

Every morning, every day, 85% of Americans alter their state of consciousness with a potent psychoactive drug: caffeine. Nobody would dare compare caffeine with alcohol. The split into two distinct classes of these beverages is so familiar. Was it true for the Amerindians peoples?


Wild tobacco plant Nicotiana attenuata
Wild tobacco plant Nicotiana attenuata.
Ancestral Puebloans 1200-old pouches from yucca filled with tobacco found at Antelope Cave, Arizona
1200-old pouches filled with tobacco.

The tobacco in ceremonies, political dealings, medecine and everyday life.


 The oldest documented uses of tobacco date back 1200 years. Pouches made with Yucca fibres and containing wild tobacco leaves (Nicotiana attenuata) were found in the Antelope Cave in north western Arizona (Adams & al. 2015).

Tobacco seems to be the most widespread use. The earliest evidence for North America dates back to Jacques Cartier's encounter with the Iroquoian Indians on the banks of the St Lawrence in 1535. Tobacco is of ordinary and daily use, with no immediate connection to a ritual, or communication with the spirits:

They also have a weed of which they make great heaps in the summer for the winter. This they value highly and use it for men only in the following way. They dry it in the sun, and wear it on their necks in a small animal skin in place of a bag, with a horn of stone or wood: then at all hours make powder of the said herb, & put it in one of the ends of the said horn, then put a coal of fire on it, and suck from the other end, so much that they swell their body with smoke, so that it comes out of their mouth, & through their nostrils, as through a chimney pipe: & say that this keeps them healthy and warm, & they are never without the said things. We have tried the said smoke, after which we have put into our mouth, as if we had put pepper powder in it, so hot is it.” (Cartier 1535, 31)

The same tobacco was used in political ceremonies or negotiations, when people smoked the pipe with their former enemies or new allies. The exchanges between the Iroquoians and the French foreshadowed what would be repeated ad infinitum in subsequent contacts. The Indians brought the sailors "many eels & other fish, with two or three loads of big millet [maize], which is the bread they live on in the said land, and several big melons”. In exchange, Cartier had “bread and wine brought to make the said lord [Donnacona] and his band drink and eat”. Cartier went to the Stadacone village of Chief Donnacona. The French learned to smoke tobacco with a pipe, the Iroquoians to drink brandy. A mutual discovery. Tobacco thus has many uses and displays different symbolisms depending on the context.

Among the Hurons, collective deliberations took place while smoking tobacco. They are described by Gabriel Sagard, a missionary of the Recollet order, who lived among them in 1623-24: “When they are all assembled, & the Hut closed, they make a long pause before speaking, so as not to be hasty, yet always holding their Calumet in their mouths, then the Captain begins to harangue in terms & speech loud & intelligible for a fairly long time, on the matter they have to deal with in this council: having finished his speech, those who have something to say, one after the other without interrupting each other & in a few words, give their reasons & opinions, which are then collated with straws or small rushes, & on this is concluded what is deemed expedient.” (Sagard 1632, 199)


Kinnickinnick (an Ojibwe word) literally means "what is mixed," and refers to plant materials that Indian people mixed with tobacco for smoking. Use of kinnickinnick was widespread in North America, but the ingredients varied regionally. In the Woodlands, the favorite ingredients were the inner bark of certain willows, dogwoods, or sumac leaves. The final mixture usually only contained about one-third tobacco.


Ink drawings by Louis Nicolas made around 1675 during his 11-year stay in Canada => Codex Canadensis
Sauvage hyroquois de La Nation de gandaouaguehaga en virginie Capitaine de La Nation des Illinois, il est armé de sa pipe, et de son dard. Sauvage de Nation outaouaks - Pipe - sac a peetun. Roy de La grande Nation des Nadouessiouek. Il est armé de sa Massue de guerre qu'on nomme pakamagan, Il regne dans un grand Pais au dela de la Vermeille
Sauvage hyroquois de La Nation de gandaouaguehaga en virginie - attouguen ache de guere - Ce Jeune homme a fait en ma Presance son Essay de guerre se faisant arracher des ongles, couper le bout du nés par ses camarades qui le menoint comme en triomphe au tour du bourg voulant par la qu'on sceut qu'il soufriroit genereusement tous les tourments que les Ennemis de guerre lui fairoit souffrir en cas qu'il fut prix. Capitaine de La Nation des Illinois, il est armé de sa pipe, et de son dard. Sauvage de Nation outaouaks - Pipe - sac a peetun [tobacco]. Roy de La grande Nation des Nadouessiouek. Il est armé de sa Massue de guerre qu'on nomme pakamagan, Il regne dans un grand Pais au dela de la Vermeille. [Sioux, living in present day Minnesota before 1700, now in Eastern Dakota]


At the other end of the subcontinent, on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, no fermented beverage but tobacco to accompany a feast. In 1684, Henri Joutel joined Cavelier de La Salle on his third expedition to the mouth of the Mississippi: “This procession thus led us to the Chief's hut, where, having been a short time, we were taken to a larger hut a quarter of a league away; this was the hut where the public rejoicings were held, and the great assemblies. We found it lined with mats to sit on; the elders sat down around us, and we were brought to eat sagamite, which is their soup, small beans, corn bread, and other breads which they make with cooked flour, and finally we were presented with a smoke.” (Joutel 1684, 215)

The same Joutel testifies that the ceremonies of the first fruits of maize are not accompanied by any fermented beverage: “When the wheat is ripe, they gather a certain quantity of it into a basket, or a bin, & this basket is placed on a seat or a kind of ceremonial stool, which is intended for this purpose, & is only used in their mysteries, which they have great veneration for. The bin, & the wheat placed on the venerable stool, an old man stretches out his hands on it, & speaks a long time; then the same old man distributes the wheat to the women, & no one is allowed to eat new wheat, until eight days after the ceremony. It may be seen that by this they mean to offer or bless the first-fruits of their harvest. When they hold assemblies, & the sagamite [corn porridge], which is the most essential part of their meal, is cooked in a large pot, they place this pot on the ceremonial stool, & an old man stretches out his hands over it, & mumbles certain words between his teeth for a long time, after which it is eaten.” (Joutel 1684, 225-226).


The beverages from caffeinated and vomiting plants.


They are used in collective ceremonies: large meetings of warriors before going to war, collective decisions, various festivities. A decoction of leaves and berries of Ilex vomitoria Ait. (yaupon, yapon, yupon) or Ilex cassine L. (dahoon) rich in methylxanthines is heated for several days and then drunk in large quantities. This powerful emetic produces hallucinogenic effects. It is known in the literature as cassiné or black beverage. Its use is widespread in the South and South-East, the native regions of the plant.


Florida: Timucuas Indians (the Casiné). Drink made from leaves of the ilex vomitoria (Yaupon holly).
Florida: Timucuas Indians (the Casiné). Drink made from leaves of the ilex vomitoria (Yaupon holly). Engraving by Theodore de Bry (1591), illustrating Histoire d'un Voyage fait en la terre du Brésil, by Jean de Léry (1578).

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, a painter-soldier, illustrated and commented on a ritual scene of casiné consumption among the Timucuas Indians. Here is how he describes the role of this vomiting and hallucinatory beverage in the run-up to war expeditions: “The king orders the women to prepare the casiné, a beverage made from the leaves of certain plants whose juice is squeezed out. The cupbearer then presents it to the king in a shell and passes it to the other attendants. They appreciate this beverage so much that no one is allowed to drink it in the assembly unless he has shown courage in war. This drink is no sooner swallowed than it makes you sweat. Therefore, those unable to keep it, reject it, and are not entrusted with anything difficult, nor with any military office. After drinking this beverage, one can remain for twenty-four hours without eating or drinking anything. Casiné nourishes and strengthens the body, but does not go to the head.” (Le Moyne de Morgues 1591). So neither drunkenness nor alcoholic fermentation!

This ingestion was a test of endurance. The Timucuas and other Amerindian peoples of the Southeast used the leaves and stems in an infusion called asi or black beverage, intended to purify the men and unify the warrior groups. The ceremony involved vomiting (hence the epithet vomitoria) caused by the large quantity of beverage ingested. The active substance is caffeine, which the wild varieties of Ilex contain in high proportions: “If there is something to be dealt with, the king calls the jaruars, that is to say their priests and elders, and asks for their advice; then he orders that casiné, which is a beverage made from the leaves of a certain tree, be made and drunk while hot. He drank the first one, and then had everyone give it to him one after the other in the same vase, which held a quart, Paris measure. They pay so much respect to this beverage that no one may drink in this assembly unless he has proved himself in war. Moreover, this beverage has such a virtue that as soon as they have drunk it they become all sweaty, which, having passed, stops the hunger and thirst for twenty-four hours afterwards.” (Laudonnière 1564, 10)


In 2012, the chemical analyses of organic residues within fragments of beaker vessels dating between A.D. 1050 and 1250 from the large site of Cahokia and surrounding smaller sites in Illinois revealed the presence of Black Drink. This major discovery has identified theobromine, caffeine, and ursolic acid, as biomarkers for species of Ilex (holly) used to prepare the ritually important Black Drink contained in the pottery. This confirms that Cahokia was a major Amerindian site along the Middle Mississippi river where rituals has occurred during a period that scholars consider a pi