Ancient brewery discovered on mountaintop in Peru


Field Museum online expedition still in progress describes discovery of 'Beer of Kings'

Archaeologists discover a 1,000-year-old brewery from the Wari Empire's occupation of Cerro Baśl, a mountaintop city in the Andes. Remains of the brewery were well preserved because a fire set when the brewery was closed made the walls collapse over the materials. Photo by Patrick Ryan Williams, courtesy of The Field Museum

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CHICAGO--Archaeologists working in southern Peru found an ancient brewery more than 1,000 years old. Remains of the brewing facility were uncovered on Cerro Baśl, a mountaintop city over 8,000 feet above sea level, which was home to elite members of the Wari Empire from AD 600-1000.

Predating the Inca Empire by at least four centuries, this Wari brewery was used to make chicha, a fermented beverage similar to beer that played an important role in ritual feasting and drinking during Peru's first empire. Ancient Peruvians made chicha with local grains and fruit, which is quite different from today's commercial beers typically made with barley and hops.

"We believe this important find may be the oldest large-scale brewery ever found in the Andes," said Patrick Ryan Williams, PhD, Assistant Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum.

Large ceramic vats stood between the wall and pairs of stones lining the wall. Fruits or grains were boiled in preparation vats as the first step in making chicha, an alcoholic beverage similar to beer. The dense ash along the wall contained shards of the vats, and dark stains on the floor are the remains of fires that burned more than 1,000 years ago. Photo by Patrick Ryan Williams, courtesy of The Field Museum

Full size image available here

"The scale of chicha production in this building with multiple fires and vats, indicates that this was not a home-brewing operation," he added. "It was an elaborate brewery that produced massive amounts of chicha."

Cerro Baśl is about 250 miles south of Cuzco. In early July, Dr. Williams and colleagues from The Field Museum and the University of Florida discovered more than 20 preparation vats and the remains of what were once open-hearth fire pits. In the fire pits, hot-burning llama and guinea pig dung, along with other refuse from the settlement, were used to boil water and other ingredients to make chicha. These fire pits revealed ash and broken shards of the large ceramic preparation vats, which held 10-15 gallons.

Boiling fruits or grains is the first step in preparing chicha. Like the mash created in the beer brewing process, the boiling vats contained the sugary mass that would be converted to alcohol in the fermentation stage. From these boiling vats, the liquid would be transferred to fermenting jars where it was converted into chichi in about 5-7 days.

Patrick Ryan Williams, Field Museum Assistant Curator of Anthropology, examines the remains of a brewery just discovered in Southern Peru, home to elite members of the Wari Empire from AD 600-1000. He is working with colleagues from the University of Florida. Photo by Patrick Ryan Williams, courtesy of The Field Museum

In the brewery, researchers also found large deposits of used seeds from the Peruvian pepper tree, Schinus molle. Chicha brewed with these pepper seeds would have produced a spicy beer.

"Today Peruvians make chicha primarily from corn, a tradition passed down from earlier Andean civilizations, including the Inca," Dr. Williams said. "However, archaeological evidence shows the Wari preferred the spicy chicha made from molle."

Project botanists are attempting to recreate the ancient Wari beer brewed from the pepper tree berries using traditional pottery. Video of this process can be seen at on the website of [email protected]TM, a free, interactive online program that follows Field Museum scientists as they conduct scientific research around the world. Through this expedition website, the public can subscribe to free email dispatches from scientists working in the field. Currently, the site features Dr. Williams' dispatches from the Cerro Baśl excavation site, and a video report on the ancient brewery.

The chicha-making facility is unusual because of its mountaintop location. The closest water source, a major component in making chicha, would have been located down a long, steep mountain trail.

When Wari colonists eventually abandoned the monumental complex atop Cerro Baśl, the ceremonial drinking halls and brewing facilities were treated to elaborate closing rites. After the final batches of chicha were served up to elites in ornate ceramic drinking vessels called keros, the sacred halls were torched. As the fire consumed the building, the beams and thatch roofs would have collapsed followed by the Wari throwing their cups into the fire. As a result of having been buried under collapsed walls, the ruins of the Wari settlement on Cerro Baśl are well preserved.

Archaeologists discovered Cerro Baśl in the early 1980s and conducted preliminary excavations in 1989. Extensive investigations have been underway for the past five years, and this season revealed the first evidence of a large-scale brewery.

"As we continue our excavations, we will learn more about the scale of chicha production and how it fit into the political life of Wari lords on Cerro Baśl," said Dr. Williams, who specializes in the anthropology of South American empires, and the use of chemical and geophysical science in archaeology.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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