Steady supply of beer kept empires afloat, finds study

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A steady supply of locally-brewed beer kept empires afloat in the past when people came together during festivities in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with their leaders, an interesting study has found.

The researchers studied the Wari empire that stretched across Peru. It lasted for 500 years — from 600 AD to 1100 AD — before eventually giving rise to the Inca.

That’s a long time for an empire to remain intact, and archaeologists are studying remnants of the Wari culture to see what kept it ticking.

The study found an important factor that might have helped: a steady supply of beer.

“This study helps us understand how beer fed the creation of complex political organizations,” said Ryan Williams, Head of Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

“We were able to apply new technologies to capture information about how ancient beer was produced and what it meant to societies in the past,” he added in a paper published in the journal Sustainability.

Nearly 20 years ago, Williams and his team discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baul in the mountains of southern Peru.

At the local brew houses at Cerro Baul, a light, sour beverage called chicha was made available that was only good for about a week after being made to drink it.

These festivals were important to Wari society — between 100-200 local political elites would attend, and they would drink chicha from three-feet-tall ceramic vessels decorated to look like Wari gods and leaders.

“People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state,” Williams noted.

In short, beer helped keep the empire together.

To learn more about the beer that played such an important role in Wari society, Williams and his co-author Donna Nash analysed pieces of ceramic beer vessels from Cerro Baul.

They used several techniques, including one that involved shooting a laser at a shard of a beer vessel to remove a tiny bit of material, and then heating that dust to the temperature of the surface of the sun to break down the molecules that make it up.

From there, the researchers were able to tell what atomic elements make up the sample, and how many –information that told researchers exactly where the clay came from and what the beer was made of.

“It’s really new information at the molecular level that is giving archaeologists this new insight into the past,” said Williams.

The team found two important things. One, the vessels were made of clay that came from nearby, and two, the beer was made of pepper berries, an ingredient that can grow even during a drought.

Both these things would help make for a steady beer supply — even if a drought made it hard to grow other chicha ingredients like corn, or if changes in trade made it hard to get clay from far away, vessels of pepper berry chicha would still be readily available.

“This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds,” said Williams.

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First Published: Apr 24, 2019 14:59 IST

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