One of the greatest empire the world has ever seen was that of the Incas. Archaeological masterpieces like the old towns of Machu Pichu and Cusco (both in modern day Peru) are well-preserved reminders of what was once a great civilization. Before the Spanish conquistadores took over power in the 16th century, the Inca Empire spread out over a 2 million square kilometers, covering parts of contemporary Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina and Chile. Unlike the other great civilizations of Latin America, the Aztecs and the Mayas, the Incas didn’t have a special god for alcohol or drunkness. However they did believe that through intoxication they could communicate with the spirits and gods. To get the job done the Incas were consuming large amounts of a corn beer named chicha at all their festivals and rituals. A drink that can still be found in the countryside of Peru.
Legend or myth
The legend says that chicha was invented by accident during the rule of Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1471-1493). The Incas had large state owned farms where they grew corn on terraces. But once there was such heavy rain that water got into the silos where they kept their corn. This harvest seemed ruined and the corn mash was thrown out with the garbage, where a local poor guy found it and drank from it. Apparently he got incredibly wasted that day and a new hype was born. Besides chewing coca leaves, the Incas now had a new way to communicate with the gods and spirits. Although discovered by a poor man by accident, chicha became the favorable drink of the nobility in no time. But again, this is just a legend, as archaeologists have found pottery with traces of chicha in Peru that date back at least 1.000 years, so long before the Inca Empire. Perhaps brewing chicha was a local custom that the Incas embraced.
Preparation with saliva
What we do know for sure is that the Incas built farms with the sole purpose of growing the jora corn that was used to make chicha. The men who worked the land were paid in chicha at the end of their working day and in special feminine schools young women were taught how to make this drink. Traditionally this involved chewing on the corn and spitting it out, as human saliva activates the process of fermentation. The chicha that was used in official ceremonies was made by a group of women who were carefully selected by the emperor (Sapa Inca). They were also known as the Virgins of the Sun. After some days or even weeks of fermenting their corn brew with just over 3 percent alcohol was ready for consumption.
During the holy rituals and festivals of the Incas chicha was the only drink that was served. But before the people were allowed to get closer to the spirits and gods, they had to offer them something as well. A traditional Inca toast, which is still practiced in the countryside of the Andes mountains, had 3 steps. First some chicha in a golden cup decorated with silver and precious stones was poured on the ground for Pachamama – mother Earth to whom they praid for a good harvest. After that the cup went up to the sky to salute the spirits that they believed lived in the mountains. Only then it was time for the people to drink and try to get closer to the divine beings.
The Incas also brought human sacrifices in attempts to please their gods. Usually young kids from poor families got ‘the honor’ of being this blood offer. From research on their mummified corpses scientists nowadays concluded that these kids were spoiled with chicha and coca in their last moments on Earth. Hair analyses showed they had a lot more meat, chicha and coka leaves in the last months of their lives. So probably they were treated like Inca nobility as they were prepared as a worthy offer to the gods. In the last weeks before their death their chicha intake went up sky high. Perhaps this was because of the many festivities and rituals they had to attend before they were sacrificed. Some scientists also suggested that they were kept drunk and stoned on purpose, so they would not try to excape their faith.
Chicha in the 21st century
Nowadays chicha isn’t nearly as popular in former Inca territories as it used to be. However in many villages in the highlands of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia locals keep the tradition alive. Their chicha de jora is usually made without the spitting, which the less adventurous among you might find a relief, but other than that it’s still quite a primitive and traditional drink. These chicherias (small chicha bars and breweries) are easy to recognize by a stick with red flags or flowers above the door. In the Inca days sharing a drink with someone was an act of friendship and understanding. This tradition is still very much alive in the Peruvian drinking culture, because when you are drinking beer with a group of people, it’s very common to all take turns with the same glass.
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