The remains of a brewery in the southernmost settlement of an ancient Peruvian empire appears to provide proof that women of high rank crafted chicha, a beerlike beverage made from corn and spicy berries that was treasured by the Wari people of old as well as their modern day descendants. Decorative shawl pins, worn exclusively by high caste women, littered the floor of the brewery, which was capable of producing more than 475 gallons of the potent brew a week.

"The brewers were not only women, but elite women," says Donna Nash of the Field Museum in Chicago, a member of the archaeology team studying the Cerro Baúl site where the ruins were found. "They weren't slaves and they weren't people of low status. So the fact that they made the beer probably made it even more special."

More than a decade of research into Cerro Baúl led to this finding, which supports Spanish accounts of Incan women--a successor culture of the Wari--as master brewers and weavers. The team's analysis is being published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Cerro Baúl brewery churned out chicha for nearly 400 years before the imposing site--situated on a mesa summit more than 10,000 feet above sea level--was mysteriously abandoned. The economics of living in this spot were not favorable: all resources, including water, had to be hauled up to the lofty site from the valley below by means of steep, treacherous trails.

Perhaps because of that, after the Wari abandoned it, Cerro Baúl remained uninhabited. In its heyday, however, it boasted a population of around 1,000 people, a palace, temple and an intricate series of canals that allowed irrigation of the otherwise arid slopes of the surrounding mesas for crops. The Wari may have chosen the imposing (and sacred) site as a diplomatic front with the neighboring Tiwanaku empire in present-day Bolivia, who had their own settlement in the valley.

"These were frontier outposts, facing off but with very little contact," says lead author Michael Moseley of the University of Florida. "The Wari and Tiwanaku are not borrowing anything from each other, even though we find artifacts brought in from other cultures thousands of miles away." In fact, the Wari outpost used obsidian mined hundreds of miles north for its arrows and knives rather than more local, Tiwanaku sources.

Around A.D. 1000, the Wari ritualistically abandoned the mesa-top fortress in the Moquega river basin. They brewed one last batch of chicha and drained it before smashing the keros (ceremonial drinking mugs) and setting fire to the brewery, the last building to be torched, according to the researchers.

At that final party, the women brewers may have tossed their tupus (decorative pins) into the flames or they may simply have lost them during the hot work in the brewery over all the centuries preceding it. Whatever the case, if modern day (and historically attested) practices are any indication, it is likely the women consumed just as much chicha as the men. "There's a lot of equality in terms of how men and women drink in the highlands of the Andes," says team member Susan deFrance, also at the University of Florida. "Women will get as rip-roaring drunk, if not more so, than men."