The earliest record of coffee drinking as we know it comes from Yemen, near the end of the fifteenth century, when the beverage was popular among Sufi mystics. It pleases some historians to imagine that the Sufis began making the beverage when they learned about tea during a visit from Chinese treasure fleets. The story has a tidy logic and it’s unverified. The origins of this beverage are a matter of fantasy and myth.
One story goes like this: One evening, an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi tried to call his goats home by playing a sharp note on his pipe. The goats did not come. He found them in the forest, where they were dancing on their hind legs, bleating, butting each other, and eating the leaves and fruit of a small understory tree. When the same thing happened the next day, Kaldi decided to try the leaves and fruit himself. Before long he was dancing and singing. When he brought some of this fruit to the abbot of a nearby monastery, the abbot was convinced that it must come from Hell, and he threw the fruit into the fire. The aroma of the roasting coffee was so delicious, however, that he decided to revise his opinion. Soon the monks were using coffee to help them stay awake during their evening prayers, which is how the fifteenth-century Sufis used it too, at least some of the time.
Thus black coffee entered the world, or so the story goes. In fact, this myth might be an invention of European coffeehouse culture, since early European explorers don’t report hearing it from the Ethiopians themselves. This doesn’t mean it’s not a real myth. It just means it’s not an Ethiopian myth.
In any case, the coffee beverage that we know today is only part of the story, and whether it’s an ancient or a modern invention hardly matters. Coffee comes from East Africa—arabica coffee from the Ethiopian highlands, robusta coffee from somewhere farther south, probably Uganda—and, since human beings also come from Africa, our relationship to coffee plants and caffeine is certainly ancient.
Ethiopians have various traditional uses for the arabica tree. They make a fermented drink from the fruit, tea from the leaves, and a drink called qishr from the dried husks of the fruit. The plant also appears in local myth. Among the Oromo people of southwestern Ethiopia, coffee fruit is supposed to be the tears of the sky god Waqa and is thought to be inimical to cattle. The Oromo have a ceremony in which coffee and barley are roasted together in butter, a symbolic union of coffee and cattle (cattle eat barley) that was supposed to placate the god. As Anthony Wild writes in Coffee: A Dark History, “The anthropological supposition has been that if a tribe practiced coffee consumption in certain ways in recent history, there is a chance that it may have done so in ancient times.” Anecdotal reports suggest that this coffee-barley-butter mixture was eaten as well.
Farther south, in robusta country, both the Ganda and Lango people have blood-brotherhood ceremonies involving coffee beans. Two men divide a bean into its two halves. Each man then makes a cut on his stomach, rubs his half of the bean in the blood, and then feeds it to the other man. The relationship thus solidified is called okutta omukago in the Ganda language. These men are now obliged to protect one another and, in the event that one of them should die, the other should act as the executor of the deceased man’s will.
The Book of Enoch, a Jewish text that predates the New Testament, contains a description of the “tree of knowledge” that emphasizes its fragrance and compares its leaves to those of the carob tree and its fruit to beautiful grapes. It is not outrageous to imagine that this is a description of the coffee tree. Coffee berries are about the size of grapes, and they grow in clusters; the flowers have a delicious fragrance that resembles jasmine; the leaves are not dissimilar to carob leaves. The origins of the Book of Enoch are unclear, but it exists in its entirety only in the ancient Geez language of Ethiopia. Anthony Wild is excited about this. He says that “the sudden dawn of self-awareness in the Genesis story…is something that could have been prompted by a psychoactive substance such as caffeine,” and he suggests that coffee may have had some role in a mysterious evolutionary event called the “brain explosion”—the period during which human brain size increased by 30 percent in a very short time.
Recently I did some harm to my throat and I was instructed to give up caffeine until it healed. Until then I hadn’t gone even a single day without caffeine for ten years, and maybe more; I certainly hadn’t gone a whole week since 2002.
First there was a period of withdrawal: a headache, but later an intense pain in my joints, uncomfortable skin sensitivity, and extreme befuddlement. These symptoms passed after a few days and I resumed something like my normal routine, but I was not myself. My mind was not working like it should. My memory wasn’t as sharp. I had more than my usual trouble sleeping. Worst of all, I felt a deep and intensifying gloom.
No one who ingests a psychoactive substance every day for ten years will feel normal after only a week, or a month, or even two months without it. But I’ve got another idea, a fantasy of my own, adapted from Wild’s fantasy, adapted from the Book of Enoch:
Coffee comes from East Africa, and so do we. We may not have been roasting coffee beans for two hundred thousand years, but we were certainly eating the fruit, which is delicious, like caffeinated watermelon. We were probably also chewing the leaves. In all likelihood, we’ve been consuming caffeine on a more or less regular basis for the majority of our evolutionary history, probably for millions of years, probably since long before we were human at all. Which is to say that no species that has been ingesting a psychoactive substance regularly for millions of years will feel like itself after a few thousand years without it. The invention of coffee (and the discovery of tea and other caffeinated plants outside of Africa) is a rediscovery of a nutrient essential for brain function, a kind of vitamin: Vitamin Mind.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple. His new novel, Mr. Eternity, will be published in 2016.