Beer Fueled Diplomacy in This Ancient Empire

Analysis shows a brewery at a Wari outpost in the mountains of southern Peru strengthened bonds with friends and neighbors

Pepperberry Beer
Donna Nash

Centuries before the rise of Inca Empire, the Wari culture ruled the Andean highlands. Between 600 and 1100 A.D., its empire stretched along the coast of present-day Peru between the Andes Mountains and the sea. Researchers think they now know one factor that kept the Wari culture on top for roughly 500 years: they plied their neighbors with local beer.

Information about the Wari’s beer culture comes from research at an archaeological site in the mountains of southern Peru called Cerro Baúl. Researchers believe the outpost—a two-to-three-week journey from the capital city of Huari—once functioned as a place of diplomacy. That’s why the site, near the border of the rival Tiwanaku culture, contained, among other things, a brewery.

Looking to understand more about the ancient beer diplomacy that took place there, researchers recently dug a little deeper into the brewing process.

“We know that the Wari were trying to incorporate the diverse groups coming [to Cerro Baúl], and one of the ways they probably did that was through big festivals that revolved around the local beer,” Ryan Williams, head of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago and lead author of the study in the journal Sustainability, tells Megan Gannon at National Geographic.

On special occasions, researchers believed elites could come to the brewery to bring tributes to local lords, pledge their allegiance to the Wari Empire or to celebrate alliances. However, making and drinking Wari-Bräu was more complicated than ordering a few pints at the bar: The ritualistic process involved brewing the beer and drinking it from special three-foot-tall ceramic cups painted with the images of the gods.

With the help of local brewers, the researchers set out to re-create the beverage, a sour brew called chicha made with corn and berries from a Peruvian pepper plant that grows year-round and is drought resistant. That provided them with biomarkers they needed to identify traces of the beer on artifacts.

When they examined drinking vessels at the site, they found that the elaborate ceramic vessels were, indeed, once full of chicha. They also found that the vessels themselves were made from nearby clay.

“I expected that those fineware drinking vessels would have been imported,” Williams tells Gannon. “That's really interesting because it does speak to this lack of dependence on the resources of a centralized state, which makes these local provincial areas much more resilient long term.”

In other words, regardless of any instability in the kingdom, Cerro Baúl had the means to remain resilient and continue its beer-fueled bonding ceremonies to maintain good relations with its neighbors. Thanks to the hardy berries involved in the brew, the ingredients were available to continue making the drink even if there was a drought.

Of course, beer alone was not enough to keep the Wari from collapse. Researchers aren’t sure why the empire ultimately crumbled, though drought and rebellion have been suggested. Whatever the case, when the party was over at Cerro Baúl, the locals threw a true rager. Gannon reports that they ritually destroyed the temples and palace at the outpost, saving the brewery for last. When it was time, they set it on fire, drained the last of their chicha, then tossed the cups into the inferno. Before they exited, some placed their necklaces on the ruins, leaving behind a burnt, boozy time capsule to remember them by.

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