The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn't hurt

The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn't hurt
The team worked with Peruvian brewers to recreate the ancient chicha recipe used at Cerro Baul. Credit: Donna Nash

A thousand years ago, the Wari empire stretched across Peru. At its height, it covered an area the size of the Eastern seaboard of the US from New York City to Jacksonville. It lasted for 500 years, from 600 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. A new study found an important factor that might have helped: a steady supply of beer.

"This study helps us understand how fed the creation of complex ," says Ryan Williams, an associate curator and Head of Anthropology at the Field Museum and the lead author of the new study in Sustainability. "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."

Nearly twenty years ago, Williams, Nash, and their team discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru. "It was like a microbrewery in some respects. It was a production house, but the brewhouses and taverns would have been right next door," explains Williams. And since the beer they brewed, a light, sour beverage called chicha, was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn't shipped offsite—people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it. These festivals were important to Wari society—between one and two hundred local political elites would attend, and they would drink chicha from three-foot-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," says Williams. In short, beer helped keep the empire together.

The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn't hurt
Lead author Ryan Williams doing excavation work at the brewery site in Cerro Baul. Credit: Field Museum

To learn more about the beer that played such an important role in Wari society, Williams and his co-authors Donna Nash (Field Museum and University of North Carolina Greensboro), Josh Henkin (Field Museum and University of Illinois at Chicago) and Ruth Ann Armitage (Eastern Michigan University) analyzed pieces of ceramic beer vessels from Cerro Baúl. 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.

"The cool thing about this study is that we're getting down to the atomic level. We're counting atoms in the pores of the ceramics or trying to reconstruct and count the masses of molecules that were in the original drink from a thousand years ago that got embedded into the empty spaces between grains of clay in the ceramic vessels, and that's what's telling us the new information about what the beer was made of and where the ceramic vessels were produced," says Williams. "It's really new information at the molecular level that is giving archaeologists this new insight into the past."

To check that the ingredients in chicha could indeed be transferred to the brewing vessels, the researchers worked with Peruvian brewers to recreate the brewing process. "Making chicha is a complicated process that requires experience and expertise. The experiments taught us a lot about what making chicha would look like in the ruins of a building and how much labor and time went into the process," says Donna Nash, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum and professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who led the brewing recreation. (Incidentally, the Field Museum and Chicago's Off Colour Brewing released a beer based on Nash's work, a pink ale infused with pepper berries, called Wari Ale; it's being re-released in Chicago-area stores and bars in June.)

The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn't hurt
A replica of a chicha vessel used in Cerro Baul. Credit: Field Museum

By looking at the chemical makeup of traces of beer left in the vessels and at the chemical makeup of the clay vessels themselves, 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.

The authors of the study argue that this steady supply of beer could have helped keep Wari society stable. The Wari empire was huge and made up of different groups of people from all over Peru. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together," says Williams.

The study's implications about how shared identity and cultural practices help to stabilize societies are increasingly relevant today. "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," says Williams. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."


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Apr 18, 2019
"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," says Williams. In short, beer helped keep the empire together."

-Interesting. Tobacco is used in much the same way. You have to work in order to earn the money to buy tobacco. It keeps people invested in economies, keeps them paying taxes, keeps them involved in politics that might ban it altogether.

This is not as obvious now that only some 15% of people still smoke, but it has taken decades to wean populations off this poison.

Same with alcohol. Black market production of these drugs is strictly proscribed because they are so valuable in keeping people invested in the prevailing social order.

Apr 18, 2019
Same with alcohol. Black market production of these drugs is strictly proscribed


You'll find that almost no society prohibits brewing your own alcohol, and those that do prohibit alcohol altogether. Sale is only prohibited because it's too difficult to tax. Drinking your own pruno would be nearly impossible to police because it's so easy to make alcohol - it's just letting your fruit and grain go off in a jar - so they don't bother.

The point of alcohol restrictions for governments is rather that alcohol has a rather inflexible demand - people don't stop drinking it even when the price goes up. That's why the taxes or restrictions are sold to the public as means of controlling the harms caused by alcohol, while in reality it has hardly any effect, and the greatest outcome is directing more money (power) towards the government.

Apr 18, 2019
You'll find that almost no society prohibits brewing your own alcohol, and those that do prohibit alcohol altogether. Sale is only prohibited because it's too difficult to tax
Yeah and the amish grow their own tobacco. You missed the point.
the greatest outcome is directing more money (power) towards the government
-And that was my point. But its not the money - its the investment in the social structure. This would be a nation of libertarians if not for all the little tricks the state plays to keep people engaged in the fabric of it.

Fashion, hollywood, liberal arts, contrived external and internal threats... its the same with religion. Where would god be without satan? No telling how deep the artifice really goes because we've never been without it.

Beer and alcohol good for a society? Pure fantasy. They are nothing but a poison. See paras 20 onwards over here: http://www.future...port_475

Apr 19, 2019
-And that was my point.


That wasn't apparent from what you actually said. You were claiming that governments restrict the availability of alcohol because it makes people support the "prevailing social order" which meters them the alcohol they're allowed to have - and that's an entirely different argument.

My point is that the government isn't restricting alcohol because of that reason, but simply because it earns them money through taxation, and governments like money because they use it to buy votes.

That's the occam's razor version of the story, whereas yours is an elaborate conspiracy theory that isn't supported by the facts: in order for the "prevailing social order" theory to work, governments would also need to restrict availability of homebrew ethanol in general, and they clearly aren't trying to do that. In fact, in countries with historically restrictive alcohol laws, they're increasingly easing up to combat homebrewing and booze tourism to abroad.

Apr 19, 2019
I guess these researchers haven't heard of this invaluable advice to travellers -- Don't drink the water. Serving beer would have been an effective way of protecting these visitors from shitting all over the festival.

Apr 19, 2019
I guess these researchers haven't heard of this invaluable advice to travellers -- Don't drink the water. Serving beer would have been an effective way of protecting these visitors from shitting all over the festival.


The argument they're putting forward is:

And since the beer they brewed, a light, sour beverage called chicha, was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn't shipped offsite—people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it.


This assumes that anyone just couldn't make the beer for themselves whenever they wanted to drink it. This only makes sense if the ingredients weren't available elsewhere (but beer can be made of just about anything), or if the process was too expensive and people came in for -free- beer.

In other words, the theory only works in the sense that the state -bought- the people by giving them free beer in a festival. Otherwise it's hard to explain why the people just didn't brew their own.

Apr 20, 2019
I very much doubt that this was a case of -- Came for the beer, stayed for the festival. This was a rather cheap, weak, poor tasting brew. Since it was made from local ingredients and could only keep for a week.

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

As the above statement reveals, this festival was not about giving, but rather, taking from the people, and leads me to doubt that the beer was free. I do agree the festival was about control of the people, and this was accomplished by reminding them, who their lords were.

Apr 23, 2019
the "prevailing social order" which meters them the alcohol they're allowed to have
Noooo, theyre allowed to buy as much as they can afford. In order to afford more and better alcohol and tobacco products, they HAVE to have jobs. They HAVE to participate. And because theyre addicted, they have no choice.

Participation in society is not a given. People need to be compelled to do so. Addiction and mutual threats are the traditional options. This includes addiction to religion and threats of irreligionists to their eternal souls.
Otherwise it's hard to explain why the people just didn't brew their own
No, obviously, if they could brew their own they would spend their time out at the still.

"revenuer[rev-uh n-yoo-er, -uh-noo-]
EXAMPLES|WORD ORIGIN
noun Informal.
an agent of the U.S. Treasury Department, especially one whose responsibility is to enforce laws against illegal distilling or bootlegging of alcoholic liquor."

-see smokey and the bandit-

Apr 23, 2019
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