28 Sep 2017

Beer with the Incas:
a 500 year old Kero from Peru

Tucked away on the back staircase of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a fascinating selection of ancient Peruvian artefacts which are part of a larger collection of items from the Ancient Americas. The particular object I would like to focus on is a wooden kero with incised and lacquered decoration.

A kero is a drinking vessel without handles that is wider at the top than at the base, gently curving upwards and outwards in a trumpet-like fashion. Keros were made by Andean cultures before and during Inca rule (1438 – 1532), and they continued being produced after the time of Spanish conquest.

Kero from Peru
Kero at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. (Accession number: 1982A15)

The word ‘kero’ derives from the Quechuan word for wood 'q’ero'. They were usually made in pairs, and were cut from the same block of wood. According to Andean ideology, each kero was half of a whole, and were symbolic in this way. The keros would be used in festivities in a kind of reciprocal exchange, used in pairs where people from different social classes would drink together. This practice ties into the Incan ideology of dualities, where two opposing halves made up a balanced whole. For example, day and night, male and female, and life and death. The keros were used to hold chicha, a maize beer, which was the Incas' choice of drink and continues to be made in the present day. 

A glass of chicha
A glass of chicha. Photo courtesy of George Doukas.

Chicha de jora, as it's known today, is essentially a naturally fermented corn beer. The Incas consumed it in great quantities, especially during religious festivals, and used different methods to prepare it. The most traditional way to make chicha is to use saliva to activate the fermentation process. Women would chew the corn, mixed with the saliva in their mouth, then spit it out in water and store it to ferment. This method isn’t common anymore but is still used in remote villages and rural areas where it is served in the maker’s home marked by a red flag, ribbon or plastic bag. 

Restaurant in Ollantaytambo serving chicha. Photo courtesy of Susan Hull
Restaurant in Ollantaytambo serving chicha. Photo courtesy of George Doukas.

The design on a kero can help to date it. Pre-Columbian keros have incised geometric patterns, whereas post conquest they show a strong Spanish influence. This kero proved difficult to date and is probably from a transitional period as it features images of plants, geometrical patterns and human activity. 

The painted parts are usually made up of pigments from minerals or natural dyes from plants and vegetables, using a natural resin as a binder. As is common with keros of this period, the lower section contains the plant element. The Incas cultivated many plants but only a few have been depicted, usually those of symbolic importance. On this object we see Stenomesson variegatum - tall with yellow flowers, Mutisia acuminata - tall with an orange flower, and Salvia oppositiflora - a red flower from the Nucchu plant. The latter was highly valued by the Incas and continues to be used in religious ceremonies until the present day. 

Salvia oppositiflora by Dick Culbert
Photo of red flower of salvia oppositiflora by Dick Culbert (Image from Flickr).

The images on the upper section are likely to represent an actual event and take the form of a narrative scene. The story is said to be told in Garcilaso de la Vega 's Comentarios Reales de los Incas. On one part we see a noble standing on an undulating ground with a severed head at his feet, the body lies ahead, leading us to the next scene of a man - perhaps a prisoner - being lead with a rope around the neck by a noble who carries a staff. The next scene (which is out of view) shows the noble confronting the enemy. Within the narrative we see various objects depicted: Salvia oppositiflora, shields, a green - winged macaw (the red bird) carrying a shield, a sling or bolas, and a club carried by a black bird.

The incised central section contains abstracted geometrical patterns arranged in a grid-like fashion containing, triangles, diamonds, squares and stairs, the significance of which is unknown.

Another interesting aspect to this kero are the two large cracks down the length of the beaker, which seem to have been crudely joined back together. The filler is in fact dated to antiquity, and is part of the object's history. It was mended (possibly by the Incas) with waterproof bitumen, with the addition of steel rivets along one of the splits. 

This object is on display all year round at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, look out for it among the other objects from the Ancient Americas on your next visit!