Drinking Beer Atop A Mountain Helped Unite Ancient Peruvian Elites

Together with Peruvian brewers, the scientists recreated the ancient chicha recipe. Credit: Donna Nash

The Wari elite knew how to party 1,000 years ago – and it all ended in one mighty, mug-smashing festival that went up in flames. When the brewery was all but ash and dust, seven stone and shell bead necklaces were placed atop the ruins. 

So why did the Wari do this and who were these beer-loving people? The ancient empire in Peru lasted from 600 to 1100 CE, with the Cerro Baúl elites living on the southern edge. This particular brewery held a prime spot on the summit of a mountain on the frontier of their imperial rivals. And, well, who can blame them? Who doesn’t like beer, banquets, and good views?

"This study helps us understand how beer fed the creation of complex political organizations," said Ryan Williams, an associate curator and Head of Anthropology at the Field Museum and lead author of the study in Sustainability. "We were able to apply new technologies to capture information about how ancient beer was produced and what it meant to societies in the past."

Their beverage of choice was chicha de molle, which the authors describe as “an alcoholic beverage of superb potency.” It was a sour, beer-like drink that lasted for about a week after being made. It was a local creation, home brewed and shipped nowhere in the region, meaning people had to come to the mountaintop of Cerro Baúl to enjoy the booze.

Lead author Ryan Williams doing excavation work at the brewery site in Cerro Baul. Credit: Field Museum

It wasn’t just any party though. This was a different kind of political gathering than we think of nowadays, with between 100 and 200 political elites drinking chicha de molle from decorated ceramic vessels that were almost 1 meter tall (3 feet).

"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," said Williams. Essentially, those who drink together, stay together.

The team used laser technology and high temperatures to analyze the shards of ceramic vessels at the atomic level. They learned two key facts: the clay used to make the vessels was sourced locally and the brew was made of corn and molle, a local pink pepper berry that is drought-resistant. This means chicha de molle was likely in steady supply.

"We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together," said Williams.

However, all went south around the time of the empire’s collapse. The Wari destroyed many of their temples and palace, with the brewery one of the last to be abandoned at the end of their reign. Why they chose this route for Cerro Baúl and what led to the empire’s downfall, however, remains a mystery. 

If you want to taste some of this Wari brew, the Field Museum and Chicago's Off Color Brewing are releasing a Wari Ale that is infused with pepper berries in Chicago bars in June.

A replica of a chicha vessel used in Cerro Baul. Credit: Field Museum

 

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