Binge drinking and arson—a crime of modern invention? Not entirely.
The Wari people of Cerro Baúl were drinking and burning things with enthusiasm in 1000 A.D., around the same time that they abandoned the town and other sites of cultural significance. Of course, the drinking and burning business isn’t as simple as it sounds—in fact, the Wari engaged in ritual binge drinking and ritual brewery burning.
It’s probably a good thing that today’s drunks don’t wander around towns burning down the breweries that produce their favorite grain-based beverages, but at Cerro Baúl, destroying their brewery was a necessary ceremonial component in the abandonment of the town.
According to the archeological evidence, there were 28 leaders who sat together in the brewery drinking pepper-spiced corn beer, a beverage very similar to chicha, a corn-based beer brewed by the Inca in modern-day Peru. After consuming copious amounts of alcohol, the Wari leaders—who were undoubtedly very much “in the bag” by this point, as it were—enthusiastically smashed their drinking vessels, preceded by setting fire to any and all surrounding flammable material. This had the consequence of leaving only the sections of stone wall standing, though these too collapsed over time.
While one might be tempted to protest that perhaps they merely had a sip or two before engaging in ritual vandalism, there is archaeological proof that indeed, the Wari leaders got rip-roaring drunk first. The remains of Cerro Baúl’s brewery revealed a capacity of around 1,800 litres per batch, with women doing the brewing. Fermentation followed, and finally the drink was spiced with pepper-tree seeds—a version of the drink reserved for nobles among the Wari.
Based on the mug fragments, it has been determined that 12 of the participants were ‘lesser nobles’, because their drinking vessels held a smaller amount of liquid (355ml), and another four of the participants may have been senior officials or much higher on the social ladder, as their mugs contained much more elaborate iconography and held nearly 2L of beer.
And drinking wasn’t all they did—the spread was something worthy of a modern Super Bowl party, with the archaeological record showing remains of llama, deer, and a variety of fish.
Of course, the question remains: Why have a feast, get slobbering drunk, and then torch the place?
While the answer isn’t certain, it turns out that settling a town on top of a 600-meter mesa doesn’t make the best place to live. It takes a lot of time and effort to haul resources up the side of a mountain, which may have resulted in someone realizing the impracticality of building a city where no one could get to it. Good for defenses, bad for… everything else.
The ritual destruction, however, was likely a mechanism to preserve the purity of their historical living spaces—torching the brewery and subsequently other important buildings such as the temple and palace meant no one else could re-use the buildings for their own purposes or defile their sacred spaces.
And to finish the job? The Wari smashed their mugs in the fire. Of course the real question that follows is: With half the town on fire, where did they go to sleep it off?