Women, The Earliest Brewmasters?

Until last night,  I had never given much thought to the  gender of the world’s  ancient brewmasters.   But while surfing the net in the wee hours,  I came across a British newspaper article with an irresistible  headline:   “Men Owe Women for ‘Creating Beer’  Claims Academic.” According to the Telegraph, British author Jane Peyton now proposes that Bud Lite, Tsingtao and Victoria Bitter drinkers around the world owe their favorite suds to women brewmasters.

Peyton furnishes several examples in this article.   Only women,  she noted, were permitted to brew beer in Mesopotamia.  Much later, among the Vikings,  women owned all the equipment for beer making and controlled the entire process.  And until the beginning of the 18th century,  most of Britain’s ale came from ale-wives who worked out of their homes for extra income.   But the mass production of beer during the Industrial Revolution apparently put a end to all these  female microbreweries.

The Telegraph article made no mention,  however,  of who Jane Peyton is.  So I googled her and stumbled upon a whole unsuspected world of beer pedagogy in Britain.   Peyton is a tutor at the Beer Academy in London.   She  is also the principal of the School of Booze,  an outfit whose model is “Think While You Drink,”  (a splendid oxymoron) and which offers tutored beer tastings.   Clearly there are a lot of  beer connoisseurs  out there who want parity with wine snobs.

I don’t know where Peyton is getting her info from or whether she has a book on the way on feminist beermakers.  Her website offers few clues.  And because of this,  I might have dismissed the article entirely,  but for one thing.  Peyton mentioned that before the Industrial Revolution,  people thought of beer as a food:  as a result,  many cultures deemed beer-making women’s work.

Although my knowledge of early brewing is very limited,  I recently read a wonderful paper by Justin Jennings, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto,  on the Andean art of making chicha,  or corn beer.   According to Jennings,  Andean families have long brewed two types of this beer–one thin,  the other quite thick.   They reserve  the thicker and more filling chicha for daily consumption as a food.  But they prepare  a thinner corn beer for festivals, so that celebrants can drink more and get pleasantly high faster.

As Jennings points out, “gender roles are often fluid in the Andes,”  but “chicha brewing is primarily a female activity. ”  He then goes on to note that “the preparation and serving of chicha,  like all food,  is central to women’s identity,  and for women who sell chicha [today] the drink offers considerable social power and autonomy that they aggressively defend.”

I think Jane Peyton is on to something here.


The Last Place on Earth for Humans

While I was at the Bowers Museum in California this past weekend giving a talk on mummies,  Peter Keller called me into his office to take a gander at something remarkable.  Keller is the director of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana,  California,  and the man who succeeded in bringing the very famous Tarim Basin mummies and their associated artifacts to North America for the exhibition,  Secrets of the Silk Road:  The Mystery Mummies of China.   These European looking mummies,  some as old as 4000 years,  have never travelled outside Asia.

Keller had just located the earliest known necropolis in the Tarim Basin,  the site known in English as Small River Cemetery No. 5 and in Mandarin as Xiaohe,  on Google Earth.  And the two of us spent a good half hour or so examining the area with researcher Victor Mair.  This made a great impression on me.

The Tarim Basin lies at the very heart of Asia,  nearly encircled by steep snow-capped mountains.  It is an exceptionally harsh, forbidding land.  In summer,  temperatures there can soar as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit; in winter,  they plummet to minus 40.  And it is one of the most arid places on Earth,  right up there with the Atacama Desert.   For all these reasons,  modern humans took their time settling the Tarim Basin.  Indeed Victor Mair,  the sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied these mummies for nearly twenty years, suggests that the Tarim Basin was the last place on Earth to be colonized by humans.   And this didn’t happen until some 4000 years ago.

In the reign of Mao Tse-tung,  the Chinese government put all this harshness to work.  It constructed labor camps in the Tarim Basin,  knowing that the desert would be a powerful deterrent to escape.  And it built a nuclear testing range there,  confident  that  no one would dream of crossing the barrens to spy.

It is one thing to know all this intellectually.  It is quite another to see all the desolation of the Tarim Basin on Google Earth.  Small River Cemetery No. 5,  named for a stream that no longer exists,  is surrounded by miles and miles of sand dunes,  dried river and stream beds,  and pure nothingness.  If you’d like to see for yourself what I’m talking about,  here are the coordinates:  40 degrees,  20 minutes, 11 seconds North and 88 degrees, 40 minutes and 20.3 seconds East.   (And if anyone knows how I can embed the Google Earth photo of the site in this blog,  please leave a comment below.)  I can give you these coordinates without any fear of encouraging looting,  as Chinese archaeologists have now completely excavated Small River Cemetery No. 5,  and reconstructed the site,  with its remarkable phallic looking wooden posts.

Surveying the area via Google Earth has given me a whole new appreciation for the Bronze -Age Europeans and Asians who colonized this region some 4000 years ago.  Mair believes that water would have flowed then along many of the small streambeds that meander through the desert.  I’m sure he’s right:  how else could the colonists have survived there?

But life must have been a daily grind in the Tarim Basin,  and I often wonder if the early migrants didn’t drift off to sleep each night dreaming of their greener and gentler homelands.

The Silk Road Merchant Who Loved Haute Couture

I have just returned from a three-day trip to California,  where I attended the opening of a major new exhibit on the Tarim Basin mummies.   The new exhibition at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana did not disappoint.  I spent hours  marvelling at the mummies and nearly 150 spectacular artifacts which date as early as the Bronze Age,  4000 years ago.  I’ll be writing about some of the more fascinating aspects of the exhibit this week.  But today,  I’ve posted an entry over at Archaeology magazine on the sartorial splendor –no other way to describe it–of one of the mummies,  Yingpan Man.  Please click here to read today’s post.