Life Mr Morrison take note: Beer brought political peace to a great empire

Mr Morrison take note: Beer brought political peace to a great empire

Scott Morrison raising a plastic glass at the footy. Will it one day be a source of archaeological intrigue? Photo: Getty
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This week Scott Morrison was mocked by the more boorish element of his constituency for not skolling a glass of beer.

Mr Morrison has been photographed nursing glasses of lager, as he tours the nation’s drinking houses to show the blue-singlet crowd he is sort of one of them – but he baulked at the challenge of a rapid transfusion of the sacred amber potion that, according to drongo legend, makes all Australians such great friends.

Pity. Mr Morrison, with one eye on his God and the other on grand ambition – that he rule a hundred years! – could learn something from the once-mighty Wari people.

Five hundred years of cheers

The Wari empire was based on what we now call Peru. It thrived 1000 years ago and took in most of the Andes.

For five centuries, from 600 AD to 1100 AD, it hummed along peacefully and prosperously before eventually losing sway to the more famous Incas.

According to a new study, archaeologists have discovered the answer to the empire’s longevity: A steady supply of beer.

The project began nearly 20 years ago, when a team led by Ryan Williams, an associate curator and head of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru.

The researchers recreated the original recipe from 1000 years ago with the help of modern Peruvians. Photo: Donna Nash

“It was like a microbrewery in some respects. It was a production house, but the brew houses and taverns would have been right next door,” said Dr Williams, in a prepared statement.

Because the beer the Wari brewed – a light, sour beverage called chicha – was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn’t shipped offsite. People had to come to festivals to drink it, and to re-affirm their allegiance to both the Wari gods and human leaders.

“People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state,” Dr Williams said.

A drought-proof drop

Ordinarily, this beer-enabled political stability might have been threatened during times of drought.

But the archaeologists, analysing fragments of pottery, found the chicha was brewed from the berries of a local drought-resistant pepper tree.

Which is why the authors of the study argue that this steady, reliable access to beer helped maintain unity in the empire.

Replicas of the beer vessels used by the ancient Wari people.

“This study helps us understand how beer fed the creation of complex political organisations,” Dr Williams said.

“We were able to apply new technologies to capture information about how ancient beer was produced and what it meant to societies in the past.”

Part of the research involved shooting a laser at a shard of a beer vessel to remove a fleck of dust, which was then heated “to the temperature of the surface of the Sun” to break down the molecules.

This allowed the researchers to establish what atomic elements made up the sample – and thus where the clay came from and what the beer was made of.

Laser technology meets old clay pots

“The cool thing about this study is that we’re getting down to the atomic level,” Dr Williams said.

“We’re counting atoms in the pores of the ceramics or trying to reconstruct and count the masses of molecules that were in the original drink from 1000 years ago that got embedded into the empty spaces between grains of clay in the ceramic vessels, and that’s what’s telling us the new information about what the beer was made of and where the ceramic vessels were produced.”

The question is, will archaeologists one day analyse a lost beer glass from 2019 and find that it played a vital role in the political fate of a nation?

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