HIGH ON AN ANDES MOUNTAINTOP, Wari lords prepare to destroy their sacred drinking halls and brewery. As part of their closing ceremony, the elite members of the empire drink chicha, a fermented brew made out of grain and fruit, presented to them in elaborately decorated containers called keros. When the ritual is complete, the Wari set fire to the walls of their ceremonial buildings. As the fire reaches the ceiling, the carefully constructed beams and thatch roofs collapse, burying the remains of a complex and powerful society.
Now, a thousand years later, that closing ceremony has provided archaeologists with a well-preserved site that may be the oldest large-scale brewery ever found in the Andes. The brewery was part of the city of Cerro Baul, built eight thousand feet above sea level on a mountain 250 miles south of Cuzco, Peru.
"The scale of chicha production in this building, with multiple fires and vats, indicates that this was not a home-brewing operation. It was an elaborate brewery that produced massive amounts of chicha," says Patrick Ryan Williams, assistant curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. Williams has worked in the Andes since 1991 and has been leading research teams at Cerro Baul since 1997.
The Wari were the first of the great Andean civilizations. Predating the Inca by at least four centuries, the Wari ruled most of the mountainous regions of highland and coastal Peru from A.D. 600 to 1000. Although they lived on steep mountainsides, the Wari were skilled gardeners who developed high-altitude terracing and irrigation systems that yielded peppers, corn, and other food staples. Their closest competitors were the Tiwanaku, who controlled parts of present-day Bolivia, southern Peru, and northern Chile. Surprisingly, the historical record shows no evidence of warfare between the two great civilizations, but instead suggests that the two empires integrated and found a way to share the region's limited water supply. …