News Release

Burning down the brewery

Elite women brewed a beer-like drink at ancient Wari site – the first diplomatic outpost between Andean empires

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Field Museum

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CHICAGO--An extensive Wari imperial outpost on the top of a sacred mountain in what is now southern Peru was ceremoniously evacuated and partially burned to the ground 1,000 years ago, Field Museum archaeologists and their colleagues from the University of Florida and the Contisuyo Museum in Peru report in the next issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The last building to be torched as the Cerro Baúl colony was abandoned was a sophisticated brewery with a 1,800-liter capacity – no micro-brewery, even for its time.

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The elaborate abandonment of the colony began with the brewing of a final batch of chicha, a fermented alcoholic drink that played a central role in the Wari culture. A week later, the residents drank the chicha in an extensive feast and ceremony. As a sacrifice to the gods, the colony's religious and political leaders threw 28 precious ceramic vessels into the conflagration – presumably after quaffing the brew.

"Chicha, which is often made from maize, was at the heart of this culture, and this is one of the oldest and largest pre-Inca breweries ever discovered in the Americas," said Patrick Ryan Williams, Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum and co-author of the research report. "Our analyses indicate that this specialty brew was a high-class affair. Corn and Peruvian pepper-tree berries were used to make the beer, which was drunk from elaborate beakers up to half a gallon in volume."

Chicha was so important to the Wari that it was brewed by a group of select, high-status women. Archaeologists were able to conclude this from the large number of shawl pins found in the three-room brewery – but conspicuously absent from other areas of the expansive ruins.

These elite brewmistresses were probably selected for their beauty or nobility. The Inca, who followed in the Wari's footsteps, continued this practice centuries later: Their chicha was also brewed by an elite class of women who were cloistered in "houses of chosen women."

"In Inca society, wealth and power depended on the knowledge and skill of elite women," said Donna Nash, Adjunct Curator at The Field Museum, Adjunct Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of the report.

Inca gatherings large and small, sacred and politically crucial, depended on the exchange of valued gifts and the hospitality of the emperor, especially on offering copious amounts of chicha, she explained. The chosen women and other Incan royalty produced fine shirts elaborated with heraldic symbols of state office and social rank, the most prestigious of all gifts. They also brewed the beer.

"Without cloth and beer, these ancient empires could not have functioned," Nash said. Therefore, women were crucial to the ancient empires of the south-central Andes."

The researchers report on their findings in "Burning down the brewery: Establishing and evacuating an ancient imperial colony at Cerro Baúl, Peru," an embargoed research report to be published on-line Nov. 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It will be the cover story in the subsequent print version of PNAS

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The lead author is Michael Moseley, Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, as well as Research Associate and former Curator at The Field Museum.

"There are lots of other imperial Wari sites, but they are all plunked down in the wide open flat land. This is the only one that's high on a mountain," Moseley said.

Remote, formidable site

Cerro Baúl is a mesa more than 8,000 feet above sea level that is dominated by an intimidating summit rising 2,000 feet above the mesa. In 600 A.D., the Wari chose this natural bastion as a base for an imperial settlement, but it was not been occupied before or since because it is so difficult to carry water and supplies up the treacherously steep inclines of the summit.

In fact, the Wari settled here precisely because it is such a formidable, impractical location. The tough living conditions there made a colony easy to defend and sure to impress the neighbors, according to the authors.

Those neighbors were the rival Tiwanaku, who reigned to the south in what is now Bolivia. These two major contemporaneous empires usually kept their distance. Elsewhere, they were separated by a buffer zone of at least 60 miles.

At Cerro Baúl, however, the Wari apparently decided to establish a foothold deep inside the territory controlled by the Tiwanaku to serve as a point of contact for political relations. That makes this the oldest known diplomatic outpost between any Andean states. It survived four centuries. "These were frontier outposts, facing off, but with very little contact," Moseley said. "The Wari and the Tiwanaku are not borrowing anything from each other, even though we find artifacts brought in from other cultures thousands of miles away."

The politics of international relations in South America began at Cerro Baúl 1,500 years ago, Williams said. "There is a lot we can learn from this site about how expansive states interact with each other and about the nature of human diplomacy," said Williams, who specializes in the anthropology of South America and the use of chemical and geophysical science in archaeology.

Class-conscious culture

Cerro Baúl, with a population of less than 1,000, was the Wari's southern most colony. It also extended over two neighboring hills, Cerro Mejia and Cerro Petroglifo, and relied on an impressive system of irrigation canals to bring water from the neighboring Torata River. The colony, which survived 400 years, was inhabited by three classes of people: commoners, mostly farmers and herders; supporting artisans, technicians and religious specialists; and a hierarchical class of governing nobles.

The quality and quantity of material possessions, housing, food, dining ware and other items – including chicha – varied by the class and rank of the people. By studying what was found where among the site's extensive ruins, archaeologists have been able to reconstruct what life must have been like for these people more than 1,000 years ago.

For example, only nobles and leaders drank chicha from pottery vessels decorated with an image of the culture's paramount deity, the "Front-Facing God." Although these vessels were smashed on "moving day," some of them have been reconstructed from the broken pieces. In addition to the brewery, an opulent palace was burned to the ground – but only after an opulent banquet of deer, llama or alpaca, and seven types of ocean fish. Condor, pygmy owls and flycatchers were probably sacrificed at the banquet. Smashed serving and dining ware litter this site, too. Temples around the base of Cerro Baúl suggest that the Wari viewed the mountaintop as a sacred place.


Digital images available:

Aerial view of brewery, palace
The mountaintop imperial Wari brewery and palace were burned down at an elaborate ceremony 1,000 years ago that involved feasting, drinking and vessel smashing. Photo by P. R. Williams, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Shawl pin
The large number of shawl pins found in the brewery but conspicuously absent elsewhere at the excavation site indicates that the elite women who, would have worn such pins, brewed the chicha, an alcoholic beer-like beverage that was central to the Wari culture.
Photo by P. R. Williams, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Cerro Baúl summit
The brewery, palace and high-status residences were excavated on the formidable summit of Cerro Baúl in southern Peru, 10,000 feet above sea level.
Photo by P. R. Williams, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Patrick Ryan Williams climbing the summit of Cerro Baúl
Patrick Ryan Williams specializes in the anthropology of South America and the use of chemical and geophysical science in archaeology.
Photo by Cerro Baúl Project, Courtesy of The Field Museum

Donna Nash sketching at the mountaintop site
Donna Nash is one of a team of archaeologists who have spent years excavating the remnants of the Wari imperial outpost, which survived four centuries but was abandoned 1,000 years ago.
Photo by P. R. Williams, Courtesy of The Field Museum

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