Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"The essential ingredient of feasting"

Although many students of archaeology may frequently think about beer, they most likely do not think about beer in the context of African archaeology. Luckily for those curious about both African archaeology and beer there is the enlightening article in the 2003 journal World Archaeology by John W. Arthur titled “Brewing beer: status, wealth and ceramic use alteration among Gamo of south-western Ethiopia”. In this article Arthur elaborates the importance of beer to many African cultures through an extensive literature review and his own ethnoarchaeological research of the ceramic pots of the Gamo people of south-western Ethiopia.

Ethnoarchaeology is defined by dictionary.com as “the branch of archaeology that studies contemporary primitive cultures and technologies as a way of providing analogies and thereby patterns for prehistoric cultures”. In Arthur’s research the ‘primitive culture’ (please excuse the offensive political incorrectness) is the Gamo people and their technology is the production of beer in large ceramic jugs. These jugs become extremely corroded on the inside by the acidity of the fermenting beer. Arthur makes the conclusion that this sort of ‘surface attrition’ found in ceramic jugs could be an indicator of beer production in other African archaeological sites. This finding is significant to archaeology because beer is argued earlier in the article to be important to the culture of the Gamo people as well as many other peoples present and past throughout Africa.

The production of beer requires a substantial amount of grain, bananas, or sorghum as well as many days work, usually done by women. Due to the land and labor-intensive requirements for production, beer is recognized as an important symbol of wealth. The Gamo people use beer in every single religious and political ceremony. This culture is dominated by a hierarchical caste system where the topmost caste, the mala, have complete control over agricultural land. The mala are the only group wealthy enough to produce beer and this subsequently gives them complete power over all religious and political rituals because they require beer. The richest of the mala is chosen by the community to be the ritual sacrificer who performs animal and beer sacrifices for the fertility and healthy the people, crops, and animals. Before the chosen rich mala is officially the ritual sacrificer he must provide two beer feast to all the people in his political district. These feast prove the ritual sacrificer’s wealth because they must produce enough beer and food for around 300 people. Through the beer feasts the community is brought together and the richest person must share his wealth with all. Consequently the Gamo avoid situations like Occupy Wall Street.

In conclusion, it is important to look for the production of beer in the archaeological record because this luxury good can indicate the social relations and wealth of the community. Evidence of ‘surface attrition’ or corrosion of large ceramic vessels indicates the production of beer. Many vessels could point to large-scale production of beer, which results from agricultural success. Large quantities of beer can potentially lead archaeologist to infer cultural qualities like trade, feasts, organization of work parties, taxes and wealth redistribution if paired with other archaeological finds or ethnographic evidence. Evidence of this important social lubricant could indicate complex cultures otherwise lost in the archaeological record.

This article makes me think differently about the significance of my own cultural practices surrounding beer consumption. In my college community as well as in the Gamo community beer brings people together. Although the alcohol content can have an affect on peoples' inhibitions, it can be argued that simply the act of sharing and participating in a common activity can enhance social interactions and strengthen community bonds. This concept reminds me of the classic scene in Judd Apatow's cult classic t.v. show "Freaks and Geeks". In the episode titled "Beers and Wiers" the dorky little brother, Sam, replaces the keg at his sister's house party with a keg of nonalcoholic beer. The party continues with normal high school debauchery and community building even without the interference of alcohol. I wonder if this social experiment would turn out similarly at my own house parties or even at the Gamo beer feasts.

Arthur, John. "Brewing Beer: Status, Wealth and Ceramic Use Alteration among the Gamo of South-western Ethiopia." World Archaeology 34.3 (2003): 516-28.


  1. Thanks for this post Arianna. I particularly enjoyed the social comment!

  2. And it makes me want to try banana beer....