Stale Beer Maidens

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

Archaeologists uncover ancient Wari brewery, discover ladies tended the beer garden

wari.jpg A Wari shawl pin: Photo by P. R. Williams, Courtesy of The Field Museum.

If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life, make an elite Wari woman your wife.

A team of natural history researchers from Chicago’s Field Museum recently discovered an ancient Wari brewery that was, apparently, manned by women of the highest class. (The ruins also show that the site was ritually burned and evacuated). The brewery, believed to be over 1,000 years old, was uncovered during an excavation of the Peruvian mesa Cerro Baúl. The Wari were precursors of the Peruvian Incas, and the civilization’s empire lasted from about 600 CE to 1000 CE.

Michael Moseley, the lead author of the study, said the discovery of shawl pins in the facility helped them identify the brewers. “The shawl pins are emblematic of elite women,” he said. “They’re so abundant that we must conclude these were women who actually brewed.”

Donna Nash, the supervisor of excavation, said the women were likely noble-born, chosen for their beauty and trained in the art of brewery, much like the Incan aclla, or “wives of the sun.”

A room filled with the hottest women in town and multiple fresh kegs? Surely the Wari took advantage of the situation and hosted ancient frat parties on a daily basis?

Not so, said Nash. The beer was used as part of special events—sacred rituals and the sealing of social contracts such as marriages. It was not something the Wari consumed on a regular basis.

“Putting it into perspective, it would have been quite expensive to transform a large amount of corn into this beverage,” she said. “It’s not something everyone could afford to do.”

Or maybe the beer was just bad.

Moseley said the beer, or chicha, brewed in this elite facility was made with peppercorn. The team has tried to recreate the beer; while they’re still perfecting their technique, the results have not been pleasant thus far.

“Regular maize-based chicha is pretty smooth and can be very nice. But this stuff…it opens your eyes,” he said. “But again, I’m not sure that we’ve got the recipe down.”

Moseley and Nash said Wari society was more egalitarian than European cultures from the same time period, although they are unsure of the precise status of women.

“There are depictions of women in Wari art,” Nash said. “In particular, they’re illustrated as playing drums while men play panpipes, so they obviously played an important part in festivals that included music.

“Not all societies include women in those kinds of events,” she added.

If the description of women seems a little weak for an expedition that’s been running for 20 years, don’t lose heart: According to Moseley, they’ve only excavated about 5% of the nearly-inaccessible Cerro Baúl summit. The researchers still have lots of questions about Wari society and how it interacted with neighboring states.

“The most significant part about the site is the fact that it’s located on the frontier of two ancient states: the Wari and the Tiwanaku,” Nash said. “The site itself is quite special in that it probably acted in some diplomatic capacity between these two ancient states.”

The researchers’ most immediate plans include a closer look at the buildings they’ve uncovered—the brewery, a palace and an annex to the palace.

“We want to finish the Governor’s Palace, we want to go to the annex area,” Mosely said. “We need to get a better handle on the lower classes [who lived] on the summit of the Ba&uactue;l but again, it’s damn expensive.”

“What we would like is to have a big beer company sponsor our research.”

Originally published November 21, 2005

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