Archaeologists unearth more evidence that when a civilization drinks together, it stays together
The Wari people used their corn-based beer to spread their culture across Peru.
The Wari empire, an ancient Peruvian civilization that predated the Inca, made advances in agriculture, art, architecture, and warfare. They also drank a ton of beer.
According to archaeologists, Wari breweries—largely managed by women—played a major role in spreading the empire’s influence across diverse communities throughout Peru during its height between 450 and 1,000 C.E.
“We’re trying to understand how Wari civilization sustained itself for so long,” says Ryan Williams, an archaeologist at the Field Museum in Chicago. At their peak, Wari controlled a strip of land in modern-day Peru between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific coast. It stretched the same length as the distance between Jacksonville, Florida, and New York City. While the empire collapsed before European colonizers arrived in South America, they had an early influence on the development of the Inca—Williams compares it to the Greeks settling in Italy and helping give rise to the Roman Empire.
Because Wari people never had contact with Europeans and didn’t have their own written language, much of what we know about them comes from archaeological records. Williams says it wasn’t until 1950 that archaeologists were able to identify the Wari capital city, which allowed them to understand the scope of the empire. Now, researchers have excavated sites hundreds of miles away, and one thing has stood out: breweries—they’re everywhere. Williams’ team’s study, published this past Thursday in Sustainability, focuses on one at Cerro Baúl, a town at the southern edge of the empire hundreds of miles from the capital.
Williams says his team was interested in how Wari created a unique culture around beer to unify otherwise disparate groups of people throughout their territory. It’s a classic case of bringing people together through drinking and merriment, but scaled way, way up.
“Institutions around beermaking played a role in creating the glue that binds societies together,” Williams says.
Civilizations began producing alcoholic beverages, in some cases, before they created written languages. Archaeologists believe early hominids first got a taste for booze by eating fruits that had fallen from trees and naturally fermented over time. In 2018, researchers unearthed 13,000 year-old mortars from a cave in Israel that suggested humans were even making beer before they cultivated cereal crops for bread.
Archaeologists have found evidence of fermented beverage production in sites around the globe, and most of these processes are believed to have sprung up independently from each other. From rice wine in China to barley beer in Iran, it seemed you weren’t a real civilization until you had your own proverbial liquor label.
The Wari variety was chicha: a slowly brewed, beer-like fermented beverage typically made from corn that’s still produced today in South America. The brewery at Cerro Baúl made it for four centuries, surviving any environmental or social problems that may have arisen to become what Williams calls the best-preserved Wari brewery found to date. Brewers would produce 1,500 to 2,000 liters of the stuff at a time and throw multi-day, community-wide drinking festivals to consume it.
The team believes that these breweries were so resilient because they produced their own materials instead of importing them from a central capital. By completing a chemical analysis of pottery fragments found at Cerro Baúl, they found that the clay came from local sources while still retaining common Wari iconography.
The chemical analysis was also able to find tiny traces of biomarkers on the pottery associated with chicha de molle, a specific type of chicha made from fermented pepper berries. Excavators also found remnants of discarded pepper berries that had previously been used for brewing. While today’s chicha is usually corn-based, the majority of samples analyzed at Cerro Baúl are the pepper berry variety. Williams says this wasn’t a coincidence: pepper berry trees can survive droughts, making them ideal for the wide range of environments that the Wari empire would’ve encompassed.
Williams says the pepper berry is a common ingredient in most chicha brewing practices, along with the pottery the chicha would be served in, became the Wari brand. The envy of marketing departments everywhere, the beer was cohesive enough to communicate a shared political experience but adaptable enough for communities to sustainably produce it for centuries.
“Even in environmentally bad times, [Wari] could continue to kind of maintain this interaction with their population through this production of beer,” Williams says.
But, of course, researchers couldn’t be sure until they tried making the beer themselves. That’s where Donna Nash, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, got to unleash the beermaker within: She needed to reproduce the chicha to provide something to compare with the biomarkers found in the pottery fragments. She also wanted to see if Wari would’ve been able to make chicha at a smaller, household scale, which would’ve made the process even more accessible and, therefore, more widespread.
Nash worked with a local woman for about a month, who taught her how to brew both the corn and pepper berry chicha varieties using a process very similar to how Wari would’ve done it. She then compared the final product and the materials used to what the team found at the archaeological site.
“Making molle, you can actually do it in a single day,” Nash says. They first had to pick and winnow pepper berries that were ripe enough to have turned a caramel color. Then, they put the berries in a pot of boiling water and allowed it to steep like tea, taste-testing it every so often for optimal sweetness. They drained the berries out with cheesecloth and allowed the steeped water to sit in a cool, dark place for about five days.
“People who were brewing the chicha were probably also making thin, gauzy textiles to do the straining,” Nash says, though fabrics made out of organic material in archaeological ruins typically decay before they’re excavated. Some scholars, she says, have suggested that the relatively low-commitment pepper berry chicha brewing process could have been adopted by individual households, cementing Wari identity beyond the breweries.
The research wouldn’t have been complete without tasting the chicha. Nash says it’s surprisingly sweet, more like a cider than, say, a craft beer—there are no hops, and boiling the berries releases pockets of sugary resin. Whatever the taste, Nash and the rest of the team’s research suggests that chicha was instrumental in keeping the Wari empire together for so long.
“If you’re a little tipsy, most people are friendlier. And the experience of drinking together certainly does make those social bonds,” Nash says. “Also, we can’t ignore the way that ritual beliefs and behaviors are embedded in a lot of other things that these folks would have been doing.”
Archaeologists excavating civilizations around the globe have found that alcohol wasn’t just a way for our ancestors to get buzzed—in many cases, it occupied a significant place in society. Beer and wine were present in myths and offerings to the gods in Greece, and Rome, and were even used to pay the workers who built Ancient Egypt’s pyramids. Nash says that even when her team began research at Cerro Baúl, they performed a ceremonial offering to the land with beer in order to respect local traditions.
John W. Arthur, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida, wrote in a piece for Anthropology Now, “Beer binds people together and serves to reinforce social hospitality and communality during ceremonial and everyday activities.”
Williams says archaeologists have yet to find Wari breweries that were still in use after the empire collapsed, which he believes points to their crucial role in fostering connections between what would have otherwise been politically fragmented groups.
“When the Wari state collapses, in these areas there are no big brewing facilities left,” he says. “People tend to start to move up into small, fortified hilltop villages, they’re starting to raid against each other.”
Nash says the research speaks to how seemingly small features of a society can help hold it together. Pepper berries could be easily propagated and grown throughout differing environments in Peru, and household chicha was simple enough to make in small batches without the need for too much fuel to brew it. Nash says this wasn’t a coincidence, and that the Wari were aware of how adaptable (and therefore influential) this practice could be for communities that would’ve otherwise had little in common with them.
“It shows us that local sourcing based on large shared ideas can provide the sustainable resources for political unification over very long periods of time,” Williams says.
Were Wari so successful because being constantly tipsy off homemade beer helped them get along better? Probably not—this research suggests beer may have been more potent as a cultural concept rather than an alcohol. But a few Peruvian brewskis couldn’t have hurt.