Fancy a drink? Chicha: An Ancient Maize-Based Fermented Brew

10 minute read

By Jimena Lobo Guerrero Arenas

When thinking of alcoholic beverages in the pre-Columbian world, chicha occupies a prominent place.

Chicha is a drink derived from the non-distilled fermentation of maize, or sometimes other native cereals found in the Americas.

Maize was the quintessential crop for indigenous people throughout the pre-Columbian period. To talk about chicha, was to talk about maize and vice versa, but also about offerings, ceremonies, and rituals.

Not surprising, therefore, is the number of objects in archaeological collections in museums around the world that allude to maize and so to chicha, since both were present in most social and ritual activities for both the living and the dead during pre-Columbian times.

For us, then, chicha provides an excuse to explore collections at MAA in search of maize-related objects. Maize representations highlight the importance of this crop for pre-Columbian people and objects themselves reveal unknown stories in museum collections around the world.

Image 1. Peruvian pre-Columbian jar with man’s face on spout, four maize cobs in high relief on body of vase. MAA 1921.746

This jar, with a man’s face on its spout and four maize cobs in high relief on its body, is one of many examples associated with maize in MAA. Without potters’ wheels, in simple ovens and using a variety of raw materials, maize cobs were realistically shaped in high relief, painted, with fretwork surfaces, carved, but sometimes also depicted schematically and abstractly.

This vessel travelled from the north coast of Peru to England, specifically the British Museum, in 1921. It was one of 600 objects bought in 1907 by  J.H. Spottiswoode  in the Pacasmayo region, 50 miles north of the city of Trujillo in Peru, presumably from the looting of burials. Most objects in this collection, around 500, were identified as funerary vessels corresponding to the Later Intermediate Period and Late Horizon (11th to the early 16th century) from the Chimú and Chimú-Inca pre-Columbian periods.

Spottiswoode’s collection was split up, with objects sent to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery; the Liverpool Museum; the Salford Art Gallery and MAA. 75 of the 600 objects ended up in Cambridge. Splitting up large batches of pre-Columbian artefacts into smaller collections and dispersing them to different museums was common practice at the time. In 1988 Linda Walton published the results of her research into this distributed collection. She highlighted the importance of the study of moulds in the manufacture of ceramics and their present significance in museum collections. But while noting the use of moulds in the past is important, motifs selected are also worth consideration.

Unsurprisingly, there are objects similar to the Cambridge maize jar in the museums to which the Spottiswoode collection was distributed, such as this one in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Image 2. Peruvian pre-Columbian jar with man’s face on spout. Pitt Rivers Museum, PRM 1921.78.74

Perhaps more interesting is the similarity between those jars and the one in the Larco Herrera Museum in Peru.

Image 3. Peruvian pre-Columbian jar with man’s face on spout and maize cobs in high relief in its body. Museo Larco Herrera, ML026869/0000041638

There is no online information about this object discovery, provenance, or any other information that could link it to the Spottiswoode collection. But is it possible that at some point objects in the Larco Herrera collection were part of the same set that arrived in the UK?

A second vessel in MAA, with maize cobs in its body is also part of the Spottiswoode collection. It is possible that the base of this served as a mould or at least as a source of inspiration to make the other two objects below, adding a distinctive element to each.

Image 4. Peruvian pre-Columbian vessel with man’s head for spout and maize cobs in high relief on the upper part of the body. MAA 1921.740
Image 5. Peruvian pre-Columbian vessel with maize cobs in high relief on the upper part of the body. Larco Herrera Museum, Peru. ML022997/0000037652

Image 6. Peruvian pre-Columbian vessel with maize cobs in high relief on the upper part of the body. British Museum. Am1921,1027.196

The use of moulds for making ceramics during the late period in the north coast of Peru is well known, and the number of objects of the same type and motif common. Perhaps, the repetition of the same object in large collections influenced decisions for dividing up archaeological collections such as the one that in 1921 arrived in the United Kingdom. But, why insist on a maize motif? 

Both in life and in death, food was placed at the centre of human social relations in the past. Maize was the main staple food of most of the pre-Columbian North American, Mesoamerican, South American, and Caribbean groups, and it served not only dietary but social purposes. It played a leading role in the establishment of alliances, exchanges, and power relations.

Sixteenth-century chroniclers extensively described the importance of offering food to the dead, in particular maize.

Image 7. Burial of the Ynga: Inka Illapa, aya, the deceased Ynga, his corpse. By Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala 1615. Nueva crónica y buen gobierno. Peruvian manuscript. Drawing 112. First Chapter. (Wikimedia)

Archaeologists continue to excavate graves finding bodies normally associated with ceramic vessels. These vessels largely contain organic residues, specifically plant microfossils, which can now be identified. Microfossils of maize appear in most pre-Columbian archaeological contexts.

Image 8. Maize cobs and algarroba seeds. MAA 1959.423 G

These maize cobs and algarroba seeds, for example, were found as part of an excavation during the Cambridge Atacama Desert Expedition carried out by L.H. Barfield in 1958 (Fig.8). The maize cob was found near a pot and algarroba seeds were wrapped in one of the textiles that also formed part of the burial. We do not know, but it is very likely that a vessel decorated with maize cobs was part of this funerary context as well.

Maize was offered as grain and, but also transformed into both solid and liquid food. Queros, aríbalos, and jars served as containers for the principal maize drink: chicha. Vessels shown here would have contained themselves chicha, but also been part of ceremonies related to its consumption and libation.

Maize chicha is the most popular. However, indigenous people of the Amazon make chicha from yucca or cassava (manioc) and its preparation is carried out by women.

Image 9. Boro women making cassava. MAA LS.26726.WHI

In this image, taken by expeditionary Thomas William Whiffen during his trip at the beginning of the twentieth century to the Colombian Amazon, a group of four Boro women are preparing cassava outdoors beside a maloka (Indian communal house). The woman standing at the left is using a basketry cassava-squeezer. The woman standing at the centre is using a basketry cassava-strainer on a tripod stand. The two seated women are grating cassava into gourds and bowls. On the ground at the right is a basket full of unprepared cassava and a pot.

Chicha was served at gatherings to strengthen community ties and feelings of solidarity and equality. To serve it, a small container made with a hollowed-out pumpkin passed from person to person was normally used. Gourds were widely represented on ceramic vessels. These vessels were probably also used as maize and chicha containers themselves.

Today, chicha is still consumed and occupies a prominent place in the festive activities of various indigenous groups in Latin America. If you fancy a drink, a simple gourd like this filled with chicha is sure to pass from hand to hand and then come to you to invite you to drink and celebrate.

Image 14.. A round yellow gourd, with a circular opening at the top. . MAA 1989.11

Author bio

Jimena Lobo Guerrero Arenas is the Senior Curator responsible for World Archaeology at MAA. Her research interests focus on the historical archaeology of the Americas and on the history and archaeology of colonialism with particular attention to Colombia and Ecuador. She is especially interested in material culture studies, cultural heritage and museums.

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