September 27, 2015

Beer: Is there anything it can’t do?

Filed under: Alcohol, Experimental archaeology — acagle @ 6:29 am

Staten Island Students Brew Chicha Beer To Learn About Ancient Peruvian Migration

Chicha was an important element of the ancient Moche diet, but as with most alcoholic consumption through time, it also helped cement social alliances. ”People drank prodigious amounts of chicha at social events,” Gagnon and colleagues write in a new article in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. By one estimate, the average ancient Moche person drank 2 liters of chicha daily, and even more during feast times. ”The production of chicha was a site of power negotiations at the local level,” they explain, and chicha production is often identified by archaeologists based on their finding of special vessels for fermentation of the drink.

Brewing a drink like chicha is relatively simple: take water and sprouted corn, boil for hours, cool, strain, add yeast, and let ferment for a few days. But what excessive drinking of chicha does to the human skeleton is much more complex. Our bodies contain a lot of oxygen in several different forms or isotopes. The relative abundance of oxygen isotopes in our skeletons is mostly due to what we drink. So a person who lives in one place during childhood, when their teeth and bones are forming, will have an oxygen isotope ratio related to the groundwater in the geographical area. Testing skeletal tissue for oxygen isotopes is one way that bioarchaeologists can discover whether a person was local or a migrant to an area. Brewing water results in evaporation, so the oxygen isotope value of the brewed beverage is different from the water that went into it. Since the ancient Moche were drinking more chicha than groundwater, though, this almost certainly changed their oxygen isotope ratio.

So it really wasn’t (at least based on Kristina’s summary, I didn’t go to the paper yet) about the beer process, it was about isotopes for a change. I’ll need to read the article, but I’m wondering how widespread the chicha consumption was across the population. One would think that it or some form of it would be common through all classes as it usually is, functioning as something of a dietary staple.

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