Drink up! Steady supply of beer may be the secret to a stable society

19 Apr 2019

Image: © 9parusnikov/Stock.adobe.com

Beer has been a huge favourite of drinkers for thousands of years, and it may have helped produce a stable society in the process.

Archaeologists who travelled to Peru believe one of the region’s great historical powers – the Wari empire – was fuelled by a steady supply of beer. Rather than this being a major societal problem, it helped the powerful state last for 500 years between 600AD to 1100AD.

That’s among the findings of a new study published to Sustainability by a team from the Field Museum. This group has been researching an ancient Wari brewery first discovered 20 years ago in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru. Much like a modern microbrewery, the site acted as both a brewery and a tavern, serving a light, sour beer called chicha.

Because it was only drinkable for a week and it wasn’t shipped off site, people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it. These festivals were important to Wari society with as many as 200 local political elites turning up to drink chicha from 3ft-tall ceramic vessels decorated to look like Wari gods and leaders.

To understand more about the beer jugs, the team fired a laser at samples of the ceramic to recover a tiny bit of material, heat it to the temperature of the sun and then analyse it at a molecular level.

This revealed two important findings. The first being that the vessels were made nearby to the site where they were discovered; and, second, that the beer was made from pepper berries that can grow during a drought. Both of these elements meant the Wari locals could maintain a steady beer supply. Even if changes in trade made it hard to get clay from far away, vessels of pepper berry chicha would still be readily available.

Brewing Brexit?

This, the authors of the study argue, could have helped Wari society remain stable over the course of 500 years, despite its size and the fact it was 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,” said Ryan Williams, lead author of the study.

He added that the implications about how shared identity and cultural practices help to stabilise 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,” Williams said.

“Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the EU 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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic