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

5 minute read

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.

A tall jar with a man's face on its spout and four maize cobs in high relief on the body.

Figure 1. Peruvian pre-Columbian jar with a man’s face on the spout and four maize cobs in high relief on the body. Late Intermediate Period, Chimú. Collected by J. H. Spottiswoode. 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, and specifically to 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 on 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 (figure 2) in the Pitt Rivers Museum. But perhaps, more interesting is the similarity between those jars and the one in the Larco Herrera Museum in Peru (figure 3).

A collage of two images of jars with a man's face on the spout and maize cobs in high relief on the body. The jar on the left is from the Pitt Rivers Museum and the jar on the right is from the Museo Larco Herrera.

Figures 2 and 3. Left – Peruvian pre-Columbian jar with a man’s face on the spout and maize cobs in high relief on the body. Donated by J. H. Spottiswoode in 1921. Pitt Rivers Museum, PRM 1921.78.74. Right – Similar 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 information online about this object’s 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 on the right, adding a distinctive element to each.

A collage of three images showing three vessels, each with a man's head for a spout and maize cobs in high relief on the upper part of the body. The jar on the left is from MAA, the one in the centre is from the Larco Herrera Museum, and the one on right from the British Museum.

Figures 4, 5, and 6. Peruvian pre-Columbian vessels with man’s head for a spout and maize cobs in high relief on the upper part of the body. Left – MAA 1921.740. Centre – Larco Herrera Museum, Peru. ML022997/0000037652. Right – 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 arrived in the UK in 1921. 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.

An illustration of a burial ceremony. Two men on the right are kneeling and looking at a drink being poured into a vessel by a man standing on the left of the vessel. Another man is standing behind this man drinking something from a glass.

Figure 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. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

A small plastic bag containing samples of maize cobs and algarroba seeds.

Figure 8. Maize cobs and algarroba seeds. Chile. Pre-Columbian. Found by L. H. Barfield during the Cambridge Atacama Desert Expedition. 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, 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 themselves contained 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.

Four women are preparing cassva outside their house. Two of them are standing and two are seated on the ground. The two seated women are grating cassava into gourds and bowls. The two standing women are working with cassava squeezers and strainers.

Figure 9. A group of four Boro women preparing cassava outdoors beside a maloka (Indian communal house). Northwest Amazon, Columbia. Photographed by Thomas William Whiffen. 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.

A collage of four images of bottles made from gourds. On the top left is a bottle in orange, beige, and black colours with geometric patterns. On the top right is a jar in the form of a gourd and lateral teapot spout. On the bottom left is a tall jar made from gourd with a hole in the body. On the bottom right is a tall jar with a monkey's head on the neck.

Figures 10, 11, 12, and 13. Top left – Peruvian pre-Columbian bottle in the form of gourd. A black maize cob is modelled in relief opposite the handle. A black maize cob is modelled in relief opposite the handle. Inca Period. Donated by Mrs. L. E. Joyce. MAA 1961.142. Top right – Peruvian pre-Columbian jar in the form of a gourd and lateral teapot spout. Donated by the National. Museum of Mexico. MAA 1948.2610. Bottom left – Peruvian pre-Columbian mould-made vessel of a gourd. Collected by J. H. Spottiswoode. Donated by the British Museum. MAA 1921.766. Bottom right – Peruvian pre-Columbian jar with a monkey’s head on the neck of the gourd. Collected by Pryor Marlborough. Deposited by Henry Kendall and Sons Ltd. MAA D 1983.8.

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.

A round gourd of a yellow beige colour.

Figure 14. A round yellow gourd, with a circular opening at the top, used for mixing things and to store alcohol. Mexico. Collected by Dr. Susanna Rostas. MAA 1989.11.

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.


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