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Brewery May Serve Up Pre-Columbian Mysteries

Scientists hope to gain insight into the Incas by studying the Wari empire's complex atop a steep-sided mesa in southern Peru.

November 20, 2005|William Mullen | Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

In an announcement that bears the slight ring of a bad Super Bowl commercial, a group of anthropologists have described an ancient mountaintop brewery where wealthy, beautiful maidens brewed beer for extravagant parties, serving their libations in 64-ounce cups.

The brewery serviced the earliest known diplomatic embassy in the Americas, a palace complex atop a steep-sided mesa in southern Peru built by the Wari empire around 600 B.C. When the empire collapsed 400 years later, residents of the mountaintop abandoned the place -- but not before holding a final, blowout feast and burning down the brewery, smashing ceremonial cups in the flames.

Discovery of the brewery may offer insights into mysteries shrouding advanced pre-Columbian civilizations living along South America's Andean mountain chain, said Patrick Ryan Williams, anthropology curator for the Field Museum in Chicago.

"The output of the brewery probably was intended for massive feasts, but we wanted to know for whom the feasts were held, who held them and for what reasons," Williams said. He and his wife, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are among the co-authors of a paper on the excavations published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Wari empire and its southern rival, the Tiwanaku empire, were the precursors to the better-known Inca empire, Williams said. Although the two empires flowered side-by-side, each raised food in radically different ways and had distinct traditions of art, architecture and governance. For reasons unknown, both empires fell and disappeared at the same time, about 1000 B.C.

Archeologists would like to know more about their synchronous history and the fact that two powerful, expansive neighbors apparently lived for 400 years in non-warlike harmony.

The new paper is "extremely important," said Joyce Marcus, a University of Michigan archeologist who was not involved in the research. Marcus called it "a 'case study' of the rise and fall of two expansionist empires that coexisted for a substantial amount of time, apparently without either empire succeeding in dominating the other."

Scientists also hope to gain insight into the origins of the Inca empire, the most powerful in the Americas until destroyed in the 1500s by Spanish conquistadors.

"A lot of Inca culture, such as its traditions of feasting and feting visiting officials, local officials and so on, was probably drawn from these earlier cultures, including the central role drinking beer had in these rituals," Williams said. "The Incas chose their most beautiful royal women from all over the empire to perform ritual work like brewing beer and weaving the finest cloth for the fabulous robes that connoted status to those who wore them."

Archeologists working in the Wari mountaintop outpost, called Cerro Baul, think they found something similar when excavating last year.

"In Incan and pre-Incan societies, we know only women of high status or nobility were allowed to wear special metal shawl pins to hold their garments together," said Donna Nash, Williams' wife. "When we excavated the brewery site in Cerro Baul, we found these pins all over the place, but not many elsewhere in the complex."

Cerro Baul, which was discovered in 1980, is a remarkable, almost inaccessible, archeological site atop sheer walls that rise abruptly 2,000 feet above one of the driest areas in the world.

Conditions seem to have been the same when the expanding Wari empire installed a small but elaborate royal town of 2,000 people atop the mountain.

"They implanted a city on top of the mesa, a place where there was no water source that we can detect, and no arable areas for growing food," Williams said. "All the food and water used in the city had to be carried up treacherous trails for 400 years on the backs of humans and llamas. The timber, mortar, paving stones and other building materials had to be hauled up that way too.

"It is very difficult for us to get up there, an hour hike along steep, narrow little trails, so we camp there during our excavations."

Excavations of palaces, temples, artisan workshops and peasant quarters on the 15-acre mountaintop are done under the direction of former Field curator Michael E. Moseley, now a University of Florida anthropology professor who is the lead author of the article.

Putting the town atop the hard-to-reach summit gave the Wari a defensible citadel and conferred prestige among locals who considered the mountain sacred, the authors said. It also showed rivals that the Wari had the power, wealth and ability to settle such an economically impractical site.

Foremost among those they wanted to impress were the Tiwanaku people, who had built a sizable city, Chen Chen, four miles south of Cerro Baul.

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