Archaeologists: Ancient brewery tended by elite, female brewmasters
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- If the ancient mountaintop city in southern Peru was the vanished Wari empire's unique imperial showplace, the brewery was its piece de resistance.
Outfitted with fire pits and large stones that supported huge ceramic vats, it had the capacity to churn out weekly batches of hundreds of gallons of brew – a highly impractical alcoholic delicacy, given the city's perch thousands of feet above the nearest water source.
Archaeologists from the University of Florida and The Field Museum in Chicago last year announced that the 1,000-year-old industrial scale brewery, built by the largest empire to predate the Inca, appeared to be the oldest in the Andes mountains. In a paper to appear next week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they make public another noteworthy discovery: At least 10 elegant metal shawl pins on the brewery floor. The finding suggests the brewers who made the brew -- based on a pepper tree berry and known today as chicha -- were wealthy women of the highest social class.
"The brewers were not only women, but elite women," said Donna Nash, an adjunct curator at The Field Museum and one of a team of archaeologists who have spent years excavating the remnants of the city atop a mesa known today as Cerro Baúl. "They weren't slaves, and they weren't people of low status. So the fact that they made the beer probably made it even more special."
The discovery of the shawl pins is one of numerous new and expanded findings presented in the paper, an overview of more than a decade of research and analysis. Others include the most detailed description yet of the Wari's ritualized destruction of key buildings in the city in the days and hours before they mysteriously abandoned it. The paper also makes plain the Wari's sacrifice in occupying a place whose location atop the 8,000-foot mesa required hauling all food, water and fuel up a steep trail – a sacrifice they apparently justified because of the city's location bordering a rival empire, that of the Tiwanaku.
"This is the only place where two empires were making face-to-face contact, and it's that contact that helps explain this site – it's both defensible and very impressive," said Mike Moseley, a UF distinguished professor of anthropology and originator of the Baúl research. The broken and whole shawl pins look like long needles with flattened heads. Fires under the brewing urns would have warmed up the room, suggesting one possibility for why the pins were left on the floor.
"Several shawl pins in the boiling room were found on the floor mixed in ash from the boiling fires, suggesting they may have been lost during use," said Ryan Williams, assistant curator of anthropology at The Field Museum and leader of the Baúl research. "Perhaps the heat forced the brewers to remove their shawls, and the pins were lost in the process."
But it's also possible that women deposited the pins as part of the elaborate ceremony that marked the city's abandonment, Moseley said. The Wari settled the site around A.D. 600 and then departed abruptly around 1000 for reasons that remain mysterious. The archaeological evidence shows that they torched the brewery, then tossed serving pitchers and ceremonial ceramic drinking vessels into the embers. "Are the women throwing in their shawl pins at the same time guys are throwing their cups? It's a possibility," Moseley said.
The discovery of the shawl pins is important in part because it suggests a historical antecedent to Incan customs recorded by Spanish observers after conquest in the 15th century. Those accounts describe Incan noble women as the society's top brewers and most skilled weavers. The finding is also noteworthy because it adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that women in Incan and pre-Incan Andean societies in general had greater authority than they are historically credited for.
Susan deFrance, a UF assistant professor of anthropology, noted that cultural biases tainted Spanish accounts of Incan practices.
"So much of Incan social organization got interpreted in history through Spanish eyes," she said. Women may not have been equals as we understand the term, but male-female society "was definitely less segregated than we would imagine."
Current indigenous Andean drinking culture may carry on traditions rooted in Wari history, deFrance added. Contrasting Western traditions, men and women drink together, and women don't hold back. "There's a lot of equality in terms of how men and women drink in the highlands of Andes," she said. "Women will get as rip-roaring drunk, if not more so, than men."
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