Caffeine: A Time Honored Agent

Caffeine is found naturally in dozens of plants from all over the world. The most widely known and used are coffee beans and kola nuts, which originally came from Africa, and tea, which first came from China.

Some others you may not know about:

  • Cocoa beans, initially from Mexico
  • Ilex plant, source of the drink known as mate (Paraguayan tea)
  • Cassina (Christmas berry tree), a native of North America, source of a caffeine beverage among Indians from Virginia to Florida and west along the Gulf coast to the Rio Grande.

It is believed that, in ancient times, people from around the world probably chewed the seeds, bark, and leaves of the most common caffeine-containing plants. The oldest written reference to caffeine is actually a reference to tea–it was found in a Chinese dictionary from about 350 AD. According to ancient Chinese tradition, however, tea was first brewed almost 3000 years earlier, when the Emperor Shen Nung was boiling water and the leaves of a nearby bush fell into his pot.

Legend credits the discovery of coffee (as we know it) to the prior of an Arabian convent, even though the plant originates from Ethiopia. As the story goes, shepherds told the prior that whenever their goats ate the berries of the coffee plant, they stayed up all night, frolicking about, instead of sleeping. The prior, mindful of many long nights of prayer, asked the shepherds to pick the berries so that he could make a beverage from them. Some historians have suggested that coffee may have been cultivated in Ethiopia as early as the 6th century AD.

Caffeine and Headache