Beer & Fire = Bad Combination (ca. 1000 AD)

By: The Scribe on Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This is where the Wari people drank themselves into oblivion and then proceeded to torch half their town. Apparently fire and beer make a great combination.

About a thousand years ago, the Wari people living at the town of Cerro Baul in southern Peru evacuated their city… but before they left, they had a few tasks to fulfill:

1) Get completely plastered on spicy corn beer.
2) Set the brewery, temple, and palace on fire.

Naturally, this was simply the course of action taken to fulfill a ‘ceremonial destruction’ of where they used to live – since both the Wari nation and the neighboring Tiwanaku state were in decline, the Wari people of Cerro Baul probably figured that they had better plans for helping their people survive than to simply continue living up on their flat-topped mountain.

The Wari people and their Tiwanaku neighbors were both agriculturally-based societies, and the Wari had lived since 600 AD on top of a 2,000-foot-high mesa – which might seem somewhat counterproductive, since any traded goods would have needed to be hauled up and down the side of the mountain, a rather dangerous task no matter how you look at it.

However, the most likely explanation was that the Wari wanted to show off their prowess to the Tiwanaku – establishing themselves with a bit of ‘king of the castle’ bravado, since the nearest Tiwanaku city was only 5 miles away and would have been able to see the Wari’s town rather clearly from their vantage point. Mind you, there is no evidence for the two groups ever fighting each other – it seems that the Tiwanaku were more focused on their religious devotion – and both seem to have worshipped the same gods… can you say ‘sibling rivalry’?

Wari ritual drinking vessels! They might have even smashed some of these in the ‘deliberate’ fires they set while drunk out of their minds.

Another thing both the Wari and the Tiwanaku shared was a deep appreciation for something called ‘chicha’, which was a fermented alcoholic drink made from corn – it was quite similar to modern day beer, and it was consumed in excessive quantities during their necessary drinking rituals.

Michael Moseley, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, had this to say about the Wari and Tiwanaku’s love for beer: “You couldn’t have a ceremony without intoxication; people would drink until they fell down, then get up and start drinking again.” Considering this perspective, perhaps the sudden decline of both cultures around 1000 AD isn’t so inexplicable after all…! Though, of course, it actually seems that a long-term drought was to blame.

Thus, if the drought caused severe problems for these agricultural societies, the Wari probably saw their inconvenient settlement location as less important than it had originally seemed to be – and so, the Wari people brewed up one last batch of beer and promptly set fire to the entire city. Archaeological evidence shows that the roofs of buildings were deliberately burnt and many drinking cups were ‘ritually smashed’.

Since chicha takes a week to brew, the people had time to get themselves organized for the event – evidence shows that there were not only 28 local tribe leaders assembled in the courtyard at the time of the drinking party, but the presence of many, many animal bones shows that the people had quite the feast before heading out to burn the town.

So, after eating too much, and getting far too drunk, the local men went out into their former hometown and set everything in the palace, temple, and brewery that could possibly be combustible on fire – then they threw their beer mugs into the flames, and walked away to start new lives elsewhere… presumably, they had actually taken that part into consideration.

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Tomorrow: Racism in ancient Rome (or the lack thereof)


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