Ancient Peruvian beer breweries

Rich Peruvian women brewed beer

When it comes to drunken women, the Peruvians have always been different. In many societies, women are not supposed to drink at all. They certainly aren’t supposed to get knee-walking, rip-roaring drunk, matching shot for shot with a man. It’s generally considered unladylike, and these days, studies keep coming out indicating that overimbibing may have more adverse effects on women’s health than it does on men’s.

But the Peruvians of today, especially those living in the Andes, indulge in equal-opportunity carousing. It appears that they simply are following a tradition that may be more than 1000 years old.

What drove agriculture? Beer or bread, naturally

A few years ago, archaeologists discovered large broken vats on top of a 8000-foot-high mesa, Cerro Baul, in the Peruvian Andes. Among the vats were the remnants of smaller vessels and some shawl pins that belonged to noblewomen of the Wari people, a pre-Incan civilization that suddenly disappeared about 1000 years ago. From about 600 AD to 1000 AD, however, the civilization flourished around Cerro Baul. Nobles lived on the mountaintop, and farmers and middle-class artisans and technicians lived and worked in the valleys below.

The researchers felt that they must have stumbled across one of the world’s ancient breweries. Breweries attract anthropologists and historians because beer competes with bread as the driving force behind the development of agriculture. Every civilization appears to have brewed, usually using grains like wheat and barley. Some of the oldest suspected breweries date back as far as 3000 BC in Egypt, and suspected breweries have also been discovered in what is now Iraq.

But the equivocal “suspected” is what makes the Peruvian find so delicious. Ancient breweries defy clear identification because the beer was brewed from the same grains used to make bread; thus, it is difficult to distinguish the cereal-based residue on pot fragments as the result of brewing vs. baking. What the brewery-hunters of the world needed was a civilization that used some unusual ingredient in its beer, something that they didn’t also use in their bread. And they found it in the Wari people of ancient Peru.

Corn fermented, pepper-flavored beer

Even today, native Peruvian beer stands out among the world’s brews. It is fermented from corn and flavored with berries from the pepper tree. No other beer in the world has this combination, and the Peruvians apparently do not use the pepper tree to make bread. This concoction, called “chicha” today, is apparently very like what the Wari people brewed high on their mesa 1000 years ago.

The researchers latched onto pepper tree residues as the ingredient that would allow them to definitively identify an ancient brewery. The pepper berries contain a compound called oxalic acid that can adhere to ceramic pottery for centuries. Using techniques like liquid chromatography, they were able to confirm that this compound was indeed present in the large vats on Cerro Baul.

Wild, ancient Peruvian bacchanal

They had suspected as much. The vats themselves were huge and obviously designed to hold liquid. The surprise was that the brewery and the vats appeared to have been destroyed in a single night of carousing just before the Wari abandoned their mountaintop. Researchers surmise that the nobles of the town engaged in ritual drinking and drunkenness—the big guns got the larger Wari beer steins—and then, when the ceremony ended, they destroyed their ceramic vats and set the place on fire. After the building had burned to the ground, the nobles placed jewelry on top of the remains, possibly to identify it as a sacred place.

Interestingly, among the destruction, the archaeologists found the noblewomen’s shawl pins. They surmise that the women may have brewed the beer; in later Incan civilizations, upper-class women brewed beer, and only upper-class people drank chicha with the pepper-tree flavor added.

Of course, you have to taste test it

When it was active, the brewery may have produced hundreds of gallons of beer a week. In an effort to experience the flavor, some archaeologists recreated the ancient concoction and report that it is not quite as dark as a modern-day stout, and has sweet, peppery flavor with a bitter finish.

The lovely bones: Terra preta to save our terra firma?

Charred bones set to save the world?

The Amazon river basin is home to the famous Amazonian “dark earth,” or terra preta, which recently made the news as more proof of large civilizations in the tangled Amazon forests.  This soil is renowned for its fertile properties, its loose consistency, water-holding abilities, and of course, its dark color. The people who used this earth generations ago—as many as 3000 years ago, according to one researcher—may have had no active interest in “greening” the planet, but they were very interested in getting a good crop yield for their efforts. Terra preta probably gave them just that.

Ancient farming wisdom

Somewhere along your educational path, you may have learned a few tips about farming. Rotate your crops. Let fields take a break. Till the soil. What you may not have understood as clearly were the natural processes that drove this farming wisdom.

When farmers turn over the soil, they loosen it. Earth happens to be the largest sink of carbon on terrestrial Earth, and when we move it around, some of that carbon gets released. When we try to fertilize it using dead and decomposing organic matter—compost, manure—this approach works in the short term to restore some nutrients, but microorgansims make pretty quick work of these organic remnants, returning carbon to the atmosphere again as carbon dioxide.

Thus, standard farming techniques of tilling and fertilizing and applying manure are short-lived efforts to keep the soil nutrient rich enough for planting. If nutrients are low, crop yield will be, too. And then there’s the water consideration; if the soil holds too little water or too much, that will also affect crop yield.

Magical fairy dust for crops

These factors all combine to make the terra preta soil look like magical fairy dust for crops. The soil actually is charcoal—or, in the lingo of the scientists who work with it, biochar. It is made from the rapid, pressurized burning of dead stuff—bones, tree bark—and manure. Pack it all into a metal container with a little hole for some pressure to escape, heat it to about 400 degrees Celsius, and you’ve made yourself some biochar. It apparently looks just like the charcoal you’d use at a cookout, but it has many more uses.

The carbon in the biochar is pretty inaccessible to microorganisms that would break it up, so it lasts a lot longer in the soil than your average, uncharred manure. In fact, it’s so long lasting that it’s still around in the Amazonian river basin long after the ancient farmers who used it disappeared. In addition to being a nutrient-rich and nutrient-tight source of carbon, biochar also is quite grabby with water, holding much more water than your average soil sample. That feature means that less water is required to grow crops in a biochar-laced field than would be needed in a regular, every-day kind of field.

Could soil invented in the Amazon save the Amazon?

Plants growing in the stuff do so faster, more robustly, and in greater numbers, primarily because of the rich nutrient source the biochar provides. Research indicates that the optimum combination is biochar plus fertilizer, which gives the greatest crop yield compared to either alone or neither. Using biochar could dramatically enhance global crop yields while decreasing water use and without adding a single acre of cropland. Using soil invented in the Amazon to save the Amazon rainforest has a nice “the circle is complete” aspect to it.

Although biochar has the drawback of having to be made and transported, its benefits to the planet don’t end with crop yield and water savings. The smoke generated from its preparation, in a process called pyrolysis, can be collected and used to form bio-oil, a form of renewable energy. In addition, biochar has potential as a sponge to soak up phosphates and nitrates from fertilizers before they reach our waterways, a sort of barrier against pollution. Last, this dark, magical fairy dust not only reduces carbon dioxide emissions from cropland but also significantly decreases methane and nitrous oxide emissions, both greenhouse gases that are far more potent than carbon dioxide but get considerably less press.

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