Drinking Potent Beer Held Ancient Peruvian Wari Society Together

beer mug
A replica beer vessel from ancient Peru. Field Museum

Archaeologists who studied an ancient brewery believe beer helped to glue together a Peruvian society which existed centuries ago. The Wari Empire is believed to be the first imperial state of South America.

From 600 to 1000 A.D., it stretched from Ayacucho in south-central Peru into the Central highlands; equivalent to the eastern seaboard span between New York City to Jacksonville, Florida.

During this period, elite members of society would gather and bond at feasts and consume a light, sour drink called "chicha de molle." The authors of the study described the beer-like substance as "an alcoholic beverage of superb potency."

For the study published in the journal Sustainability, archeologists studied fragments of ceramic vessels and chemical residues found almost two decades ago at a 500 square meter brewery at Cerro Baúl atop a terraced mountain. The outpost was the southernmost administrative center of the Wari empire in the Moquegua region of southern Peru, and bordered the land of the rival Tiwanaku society.

It appears the drink wasn't exported, and the clay used for the vessels was from less than half a day's walk from the brewery. The experts believe up to two hundred members of the political establishment would have to gather for festivals at Cerro Baúl to consume it. The beer-like brew was served in three-foot-tall ceramic jugs decorated with supernatural and political symbolism, including figures which resembled gods and leaders.

ancient beer vessel
A replica beer vessel from ancient Peru. Field Museum

"The most elaborately decorated ceramic cups may have established a link between vessels and solidified the relationships between the Wari elite who drank from them and the supernatural beings that controlled water availability and fecundity that were presumably represented on these cups," the authors wrote.

Making and serving the beer was a complex process which required special skills: creating the vessels made especially for the events; finding the paints to decorate them with geometric patterns; and understanding and executing brewing.

Dr. Patrick Ryan Williams, study co-author and associate curator and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, told Newsweek that how the drink was produced and consumed gives an insight into the source of the strength of the Wari empire.

"We found that the Wari brewery sourced its ceramic brewing containers and serving vessels from local raw materials. They had their own specialized workshop for producing those ceramics, which means they were not reliant on outside producers to make their beer.

"We also found that pepper berry chicha was being brewed in these vessels through direct biomarker compounds in the pores of those ceramics. Since pepper berries produce year round in the region we work in and do produce (though less abundantly) in times of drought and water stress, the ingredients for the beer were also a resilient resource.

The technique was "quintessentially Wari," said Williams, as the iconographic motifs on the jugs were directly taken from Wari knowledge, and the chicha recipe was also likely their own creation.

"It was used during political events to reaffirm a shared identity, to get people to let loose, and to create a memorable interaction that would bind leaders together through time. It shows us that local sourcing based on large shared ideas can provide political unification over centuries," said Williams.

Speaking more broadly about how traditions emerge from societies, he continued: "Commensal events hold society together, and special food and drink may be key to that endeavor. The Wari certainly weren't the only ones to use beer, or even chicha to reaffirm their shared identity. The later Inca did it as well. And across the world through time, special food, drink, clothes, dress were key to forming bonds between discrete groups of people.

"From a societal perspective, this literature contributes to understanding what factors are important to maintaining political unity in multicultural societies and what makes them resilient in the face of factors like social fragmentation, growing inequality, and climate change."

While the study has shed light on the drinking culture of the Wari, what lead to their downfall remains unclear.

"We aren't 100 percent sure what caused Wari collapse," Williams explained. "We do know that they burned down the brewery at the end of their reign around 1050 A.D. and abandoned the site, never to return again. Many other Wari sites were abandoned around that time. Some archeologists hypothesize that severe droughts played a role in destabilizing both the Wari and their contemporaries the Tiwanaku. Others see more complex actions, such as rebellion by constituent groups at play."