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Ancient brewery uncovered in Peru

Scientists have found what appears to be a vast brewery in southern Peru's mountains, where a spicy drink called chicha was made more than 1,000 years ago.
Patrick Ryan Williams, assistant curator of anthropology at Chicago's Field Museum, examines the remains of an ancient brewery discovered this month in the Andes Mountains of southern Peru.Patrick Ryan Williams / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Here’s an archaeological discovery that the average guy at the end of the bar can appreciate: an ancient brewery.

A team of scientists from Chicago’s Field Museum in July uncovered a brewery in the mountains of southern Peru, where members of the Wari Empire made an alcoholic beerlike drink called chicha more than 1,000 years ago.

It wasn’t just a mom-and-pop operation, but something that could deliver the goods when dozens, if not hundreds, of Wari decided it was chicha time.

“This was a very large scale of production that they are undertaking here in order to serve large numbers of people,” Patrick Ryan Williams, an assistant curator at the museum, said in a telephone interview from Peru.

The brewery may be the oldest large-scale facility of its kind ever found in the Andes and predates the Inca Empire by at least four centuries, he said.

Surprising scale
Scientists have long known the Wari made the spicy drink, but nothing on the scale of the brewery they just found. Based on the brewing room that contained the pieces of several 10- to 15-gallon ceramic preparation vats, Williams estimates the facility could produce as much as a few thousand liters of chicha a day.

The brewery was found during the excavation of Cerro Baul, a mountaintop city about 8,000 feet (2,440 meters) above sea level that was active from A.D. 600 to 1000 and had a population of about 1,000 to 2,000. According to Williams, excavations started in 1989, and about five years ago, archaeologists uncovered evidence that the Wari consumed chicha.

Williams said scholars believe that the elite members of the Wari Empire who lived in the city played host to large gatherings. They invited subordinates from throughout the empire, which stretched from northern Peru to southern Peru, roughly the distance from New York to Jacksonville, Fla.

“People were being rewarded for service to the state,” said Williams. “They feel like they are being rewarded by being invited to these drinking festivities.”

Social dimension of gatherings
Williams said these gatherings may have been particularly important because they served as a means of incorporating diverse groups of people who may have spoken different languages into a “single political structure.”

Archaeologists found fire pits fueled with animal dung that were apparently used to boil water and other ingredients such as fruits, grains and pepper tree seeds. The liquid was then transferred from the ceramic vats into fermenting jars.

The last gathering was likely the most memorable. According to scientists, when the Wari decided to abandon the complex, they held elaborate closing rites at the ceremonial drinking halls and brewing facilities, then set the whole place on fire. Later, elaborate drinking vessels were thrown into the charred remains of the halls.

“They knew they were pulling out and they had a big bonfire,” said Field Museum spokesman Greg Borzo.

Unknown, said Williams, is why Cerro Baul and other Wari cities were abandoned after this last gathering, but there is evidence that it was in part due to internal strife and natural disasters.