Ancestral Intoxication

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Intoxication has been interwoven with human culture since about five minutes after we decided we were in favor of culture and sat down to map some out over a few jars of beer. Over the next several millennia our forebears contrived a truly astonishing array of ways to go on a bender, and an equal number of enjoyable things to do once you get there.

In what follows we’re going to meet some of our less-well known global ancestors, and take a look at some of the stuff they did when they got winehoused.

The Roof, the Roof, the Roof Is On Fire

Beginning around 600 CE, the Wari people of Peru were already experts in the creation of corn liquor. Some archeological findings indicate that the Wari might even have possessed some basic knowledge of the distillation process and had also figured out how to create the necessary equipment to do the job.

Whenever they cooked up a batch of the good stuff, whether distilled or not, they packaged it in earthenware jars or baskets, made watertight by an intricate overlapping of woven reeds. And then they celebrated.

They celebrated by setting fire to the brewing building.

While dancing, singing, and raising cups of high-octane spirit in honor of the Corn Mother, they watched the building burn to the ground. By all appearances, the Wari effected these outbursts of celebratory pyromania each and every time they prepared a quantity of corn hooch. Archeologists have unearthed around forty brewing sites scattered throughout the region that were destroyed by fire.

No one is entirely sure why the Wari people did this, and since they were, for all intents and purposes, wiped out by the Incas around 1000 CE, there is nobody around today with whom to make inquiries. To my mind, the likeliest reason was that the hooch was cooked up for religious purposes, and the burning of the facilities was part of the overall ceremony. And if that’s true, you gotta love the regenerative aspect of the thing.

Hoptical Illusion

One of the few cultures on the planet that appears to have never used booze as part of their religious rites was that of the Tembe-Thonga people of southeastern Africa. From the misty eras of pre-history, until the dismantlement, by European invaders, of the Tembe-Thonga kingdom around 1770 CE, they got their drink on just for the fun of it. No special rites or reasons were needed. They got snockered (to quote one of their popular sayings) in order to: “Attain the happy state of drunkenness in which there is so much delight.”

The Tembe-Thonga were adept at making three different kinds of alcoholic beverage: the kinds made from grain, the kinds made from fruit, and the kinds made from other stuff (like sugarcane). Every so often, they got together for a drinking party called a luma. The luma was a time of family, of community, and of general good cheer. Everyone gathered in one village and, quite literally, drank it dry. Then they moved on to the next village, and drank it dry. And then it was on to the next, and the next, and the next.

Tembe-Thonga society stands out, historically, because it was among the least restricted cultures on the planet, and the lumas epitomized this egalitarian outlook. In culture after culture around the globe, an individual’s desire to “attain the happy state of drunkenness” was often subjected to rigid strictures (such as forbidding women to drink) and stuffy homilies (of the sort meted out by the Anti-Saloon League). Not so among the Tembe-Thonga. At a luma, everyone drank—men, women, and children—and all were free to get just as squiffy as they wished. Some evidence suggests that even lepers were permitted to come in from their places of banishment to get their cups filled.

The best thing about these festivities, though, was the suspension—the intentional suspension—of tribal laws and conventions. During a luma, the Tembe-Thonga motto was: “Nau a wa ha tiyi,” or, “The law is no longer in force.” And they pretty much meant it, too.

All manner of light-weight crimes and indiscretions were committed and, more importantly, tolerated. Topping the list, probably predictably, were matters of sex. The tribe’s carnal codes, which, ordinarily, were every bit as strict as those in any other group, were peeled away until only the most basic—no incest, no child molesting—remained. All those people who had been making googly eyes at each other, but had otherwise been frustrated, were now able to have at it, ungoverned by all that fusty propriety. So, needless to say, lumas featured plenty of fuzzy-bumping, out there in the shade of the sneezewood trees.

Theft was also a popular diversion. Petty larceny became the basis for games, which in turn led to challenges, followed by heated one-upmanship, until, perhaps inevitably, fisticuffs ensued. Which probably wasn’t such a bad thing. Because, let me tell ya, there is just about nothing funnier than watching two colossally sozzled meatheads trying to put some hurt on each other. (Replace the fighters in an MMA match with a pair of bellicose sock monkeys, and you’ll begin to get the picture.)

The drinking continued twenty-four hours a day, sometimes for a week or more. And then, when the mood hit, they did it again. Not for particularly vital civic reasons. Not in celebration of some important occasion. And most certainly not to appease some crotchety sky-nymph. They did it just cuz.

Sounds like a total blast, right?

A Reeling Referendum

Of the manifold ways booze can be pressed into civil service, one of the most cut-and-dried methods was practiced by the Abipón people of Argentina’s Gran Chaco region. The Abipón were semi-nomadic hunters and fishermen, who occupied large areas of Argentina from who-knows-when, until around 1710, when they were either murdered by the Spanish or forced to assimilate by the Jesuits.

Drink was really important to the Abipón. Individuals who could consume the most hooch were said to have the “highest birth, glory, and authority,” while abstemious, or low-tolerance members of the tribe were thought “cowardly, degenerate, and stupid.” During their all-male drinking sessions, songs were sung, dances danced, and cups drained. Boasting and swaggering ruled the night. To demonstrate their bravery, participants sometimes pierced their breasts with bundles of thorns, or their tongues with crocodile teeth.

More importantly, though, the men of the tribe could, and often did, make life hell for their chieftain. Say, for example, the chief had at some point prior to the bender insulted a member of the tribe, or had imposed a too-stiff penalty for an offence, or had in some other way irritated someone. The drinking party was payback time. Participants were free to ridicule, insult, berate, and jeer at their chief without fear of retribution. And if enough of the inebriates were dissatisfied with the current headman’s leadership, they could—and sometimes did—overthrow the guy and install another fellow in his place. And the decision was in all ways final, too.

What a fine example of drunkenness as politics by other means.

Gimme a Yeast, Neat

The Island of Etal is one of the some 2100 islands that make up the Federated States of Micronesia. It has a population, as of the 2000 census, of 267 people, and over the years the island has been ruled by the British, the Russians and the Japanese.

For decades there was a law in effect prohibiting the sale or consumption of any alcoholic beverages of any kind on the island. This put a crimp in the style, not only of the island’s residents, but of the many sea-going traders who included Etal on their routes. But, as you might expect, the islanders and the traders, being enthusiasts of drunkenness (“sakau”), found themselves a work-around: yeast.

Yup. Yeast. That’s what they call their illegal brew. And the name makes nothing but sense when one takes note of the recipe: Take a “large metal tin” of dry-activated yeast powder and dump it into a barrel. Add a five-pound bag of sugar. Add five gallons of water. Mix. Allow some time to pass for fermentation purposes. Guzzle.

Etal yeast comes in three varieties, designated according to their fermentation times: Four-Hour Yeast (known to be utterly horrible, and to occasionally kill those who drink it); Twelve-Hour Yeast (made for “spur of the moment” get-togethers, and also considered to be almost unutterably foul); and Twenty-Four Hour Yeast (a top-shelf tipple, for general consumption).

Largely male-oriented affairs, and usually staged in a fal (“canoe house”), yeast parties can last thirty hours or more. Invite lists go out, yes, but the motto is always “share and share alike.” If someone not on the list happens by, he will be welcomed into the group of revelers, and given his fill of yeast, of course, but also of food and cigarettes.

Is there a better drunken maxim than Share and Share Alike? Doubtful.

Feets Don’t Fail Me Now!

There are hundreds of different tribes inhabiting the Amazon River’s 4,000 miles of riverbank and millions of acres of surrounding rain forest. The tribes that enjoy alcohol, which is pretty much all of them, originally got stinko on chica, the generic name for a ubiquitous beer-like beverage made from fermented maize. After Westerners started showing up, though, the tribes got turned on to the glories of distilled booze. And they like it. A lot.

They like it a lot because they enjoy getting loaded. I mean, if your daily routine involved intertribal warfare, Leptospirosis, and maybe becoming jaguar tapas, who wouldn’t find a headful of booze desirable? But anyway, in the flick of a coral snake’s tongue, distilled spirits (commonly referred to simply as “alcohol”) took over as the primary drink for regular consumption.

Now, some of these tribes are friendlier (relatively speaking, of course) than others; friendlier to other tribes and friendlier to white religious gadflies and other tourists. And it is due to this relatively friendly demeanor that they do themselves up in their best duds before commencing a bender—their best feathers, their best beads, and their best nose bones.

And they perform one other bit of personal grooming, as well. They paint the soles of their feet in bright, cheerful colors; predominantly reds and oranges. Why? So that when they pass out their buddies will have something pretty to look at.

And that, friends, is friendship.


(Note: the Author is indebted to the works of Iain Gatley, Chandler Washburne, Gina Hames, Michael Dietsch, Michael E. Moseley, and James D. Nason.)

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