Selling the traditional beer among the Xhosa people.Article 5 of 5

Is the Xhosa beer-sharing an anthropological model?


McAllister carefully disentangles beer-drinking rituals related to collective work from other rituals in which beer is involved (homage to ancestors, mourning rituals, birth rituals, rites of passage). The former connote immediate material matters and the socio-economic relations woven between living quarters or between families, the latter address the relationships of the living with the lineages of their ancestors (McAllister 111-117). The former are deployed in the current space-time, that punctuated by the annual agricultural cycle, the latter in the recomposed and ancestral space-time of the clan.

Beer does not have the same function in each of them. Beer as compensation for work or as a social exchange in the former, beer as a gift or as a tribute in the latter rituals, which are more conservative because they reactivate a mythical space-time, that of the protective ancestors. It is with them that the oldest brewing methods remain practiced the longest (ancient sorghum beers vs. modern maize beers).

The communal drinkings involving the brewing of beer have existed in southern Africa for several centuries among the Xhosa, Zulu, and Bantu speakers in general[1]. The travel reports of the Europeans bear witness to this since the 17th century. One of the most outstanding documents is that of a young Huguenot boy shipwrecked in 1686 near the Great Kei River, on the shores of Amaxhosa country. Welcomed and treated as his son by a cousin of the Sotope chief, he lived among the Xhosa for over a year.Here is what he says about the processing of grain, eleusine or millet, to make bread and beer, and about the importance of milk as an ordinary drink:

"The most common staple food of these people is curdled milk. They also have a type of bread, which they make out of a sweet seed. This seed grows without their having to do more than scratch the soil a little, sow it, and soon a plant 10 to 12 feet high grows up, so excellent is the soil. To make bread, they grind this grain between two stones, baking a cake of it under the ashes. It is good to eat, but the beer they brew is so bad that one has to be a Caffre to be able to drink it. They make it by using a seed like mustard, which they also grind between two stones, putting the ground meal in big earthenware pots. These they fill with water, which they boil for an hour, then let it settle for three days. After making it, they invite their neighbours and drink until everything is emptied. This drink, which is their greatest delicacy, is extremely bitter, with a nasty taste, but it is as intoxicating as wine, of a kind that, when they part, they can scarcely stand up." (Chenu De Chalezac Guillaume 1686).

Other contemporary accounts, on the contrary, consider the Xhiosa's beer "made from millet very palatable" (Brownlee Frank 1933). Whether or not Europeans enjoyed the Xhosa beers is irrelevant here.

Archaeology has also uncovered evidence of beer brewing at the Mutokolwe site (occupied between 1450 and 1550) in Limpopo ( north-eastern South Africa): an audience chamber, a beer-drinking hut, a cooking hut and the office of a nefhasi, arrangements centred on the person of a chief involving the distribution and communal consumption of beer and meat (Fish 2000).

Zulu chiefs distribute large volumes of beer to warriors before and after fights (McAllister 20-30 with references). Beer explicitly mediates the political power. Grain converges on the kraal of the Zulu chief who has the unrestricted authority to monopolise the country's supplies. In return, he has beer brewed and distributed (utshwala) for his warriors, chiefs and officers whenever a decision is to be taken collectively. This beer does not compensate for collective agricultural work as described for the Xhosa, but circulates within the circle that exerts a political power. The beer plays its role at the level of a people and not of a small group of farms.

Further east, on the Mozambique coast, the court of King Quiteve of Sofala offers a fine example. In 1609, João dos Santos gives one of the earliest accounts of the kingdom of Mwenemutapa, of which Sofala is a tributary. He describes how sorghum beer is used in ceremonies, in cults dedicated to the ancestors and during political negotiations with local chiefs:

"Quiteve [African chief of the coastal territory of Sofala, theorical vassal of the Monomotapa kingdom] generally has on one side of the room in which he gives audience certain large jars full of wine which the Kaffirs make from millet, and which they call pombe. He offers this wine to all those who visit him, both Kaffirs and Portuguese." (Chap. VII, Theal 1901, 195-196).

The pombe-beer is drunk during the commemoration of the ancestors:

"Every year in the month of September, when the new moon appears, Quiteve ascends a very high mountain situated near the city called Zimbaoe, in which he dwells, on the summit of which he performs grand obsequies for the kings, his predecessors, who are all buried there. For this purpose he takes many people with him, both of his city and summoned from other parts of his kingdom. On reaching the top of the mountain, the first thing they do is to eat and drink their pombe until they are all drunk, the king first of all (a very usual thing, and no cause for wonder with the Kaffirs), and they continue eating and drinking for eight days with great rejoicings, ... " (Chap. VIII, Theal 1901, 196)

Dos Santos also offers a rare technical description of the brewing of pombe that would take too long to analyse here. The method overlaps in part with techniques employed by the brewing peoples of southern Africa, including malting and multiple mash cookings.

This political version of the beer-drinking has been implemented by other African societies: in Ethiopia by the various ruling dynasties, in Tanzania (Iraqw), in Kenya (Iteso, Bukusu), in the Great Lakes kingdoms (Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda), in the Lake Chad region (Kanem-Bornou), by the lineage societies of Mali (Dogons), Burkina Faso (Mossi, Lobi), Cameroon (Dupaa) or Senegal (Bedik) (Huetz de Lemps 2001, 111-114). Older traces of it, though poorly documented, can be found in the 15-16th centuries with the empires of Mali and Songhai (Earliest African kingdoms).

Is this ritualised beer-drinking documented throughout the world over the last two thousand years? It is in Europe with the Celts, the Scandinavians, the Germans, although in a warlike context that obscures the agrarian, domestic and peasant dimension of these societies of the Bronze and Iron Ages[2].

Can it be used as an explanatory model to understand the inner workings of ancient societies and the central role that beer played in their history?The Shang or the Han in China, the Gupta in India, the Khmer kingdoms in South-East Asia, the Inca and the forunner kingdoms in South America, or the Mongolian empire, to name but a few.

Going back in time, the social practice of feasting, sharing and dispensing fermented beverages, especially beer, has been used as a model to explain the evolution of egalitarian agrarian communities into the first hierarchical societies restructured by an emerging political authority.What means of socio-political domination have prevailed in the 7th or 6th millennia B.C. in Southwest Asia, for example?

War and the accumulation of prestige goods certainly. But also the ritualised redistribution of fermented beverages, mainly beer, brewed with surplus grain and consumed collectively in the form of beer. These mechanisms that archaeologists are trying to reconstruct articulate several areas of social life: a food technology (fermentations), an economic logic (cereal growing), and a political and religious dimension.

The room for error is large in these reconstructions. Archaeology does not provide data as precise as McAllister's. Nevertheless, the ritualised exchange of grain for beer remains one of the fundamental mechanisms attested on almost every continents during the protohistory of humanity. This is a promising avenue being explored by many researchers.


Sources and bibliography:

.    Bird John (1885), The Annals of Natal Vol. I Part 1.

.    Brownlee Frank (1933), Native Beer in South Africa, Man 33, 75-76.

.    Bryant Alfred Thomas (1949), The Zulu people as they were before the white man came, Pietermaritzburg.

.    Chenu de Laujardière Guillaume (1686), Relation d'un voyage à la côte des Cafres, 1686-1689 (1996), Guillaume Chenu de Laujardière (1672-1731), Paris : les Ed. de Paris : diff. Harmonia mundi, 1996.

.    Chenu De Chalezac Guillaume (1686), The 'French Boy': The Narrative of his Experiences as a Huguenot Refugee, as a Castaway among the Xhosa, his Rescue with the Stavenisse Survivors by the Centaurus, his Service at the Cape and Return to Europe, 1686-9. Edited by Randolph Vigne. Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, Second Series No. 22,1998.

.    Fish W. S. (2000), Early Venda History and the Mutokolwe Ruins near Tshiendeulu. MA dissertation, University of the Witwa­tersrand, Johannesburg.

.    Huetz de Lemps Alain (2001), Boissons et civilisations en Afrique, Presses universitaires de Bordeaux.

.    Hunter Monica (1979), Reaction to conquest: effects of contacts with Europeans on the Pondo of South Africa, Cape Town.

.    João dos Santos, Ethiopia Orientale, L’Afrique de l’Est et l’océan Indien au XVIe siècle, Editions Chandeigne 2011, La relation de João dos Santos (1609). Edition de Florence Pabiou-Duchamp. Préface de Rui Manuel Loereiro.

.    Magoma Munyadziwa, Badenhorst Shaw, Pikirayi Innocent (2018), Feasting among Venda-speakers of South Africa. the Late Iron Age fauna from Mutokolwe, anthropozoologica, Publications scientifiques du Muséum, Paris.

.    Mandelso (1616-1644), Voyages célèbres & remarquables, faits de Perse aux Indes Orientales par le Sr Jean-Albert de Mandelso, 1719. Troc entre les Anglais et les habitants du Cap en 1639 : « Ils ne paraissent vers la mer que lorsqu’ils y croient faire fortune, en troquant leurs bestiaux ou bien les peaux de bœuf, de lion, de léopard, & de tigre, & de plumes d’autruche, qu’ils donnent pour des couteaux, des miroirs, des clous, des marteaux, des haches, & autre vieille ferraille, avec beaucoup d’avantage pour ceux qui y abordent. » (Mandelso, 640)

.    McAllister Patrick A. 2001, Building the homestead. Agriculture, labour and beer in South Africa’s Transkei. Africa Studies Centre Leiden, Research Series 16/2001.

.    McAllister Patrick A. 2004, Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals. Power, Practice and Performance in the South African Rural Periphery. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina.

.    McAllister Patrick A. 1986, XHOSA BEER DRINKS AND THEIR ORATORY. Thesis at Rhodes University.

.    Müller-Kosack Gerhard (2003), The Way of the Beer. Ritual Re-Enactment of History among the Mafa. Terrace farmers of the Mandara Mountains (North Cameroon).

.    Shaw Ella Margaret, van Warmelo Nicolaas Jacobus (1981), The Material Culture of The Cape Nguni : Part 3 : Subsistence.

.    Theal George McCall (1898), Records of South-Eastern Africa. Vol. I . Printed for the Government of the Cape Colony.

.    Theal George McCall (1901), Records of South-Eastern Africa. Vol. VII. Printed for the Government of the Cape Colony.

.    Van Wyk B-E., Tilney P.M., Magee A.R. (2010), A revision of the genus Glia (Apiaceae, tribe Heteromorpheae), South African Journal of Botany 76 (2010) 259–271.

.    Wilis Justin (2002), Potent Brews. A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa 1850-1999. Eastern African Studies.


[1] Bryant 1949, 197, 277-278. Another example is the Pondos of southern Africa and the illama, a day scheduled for weeding the fields which can bring together up to 200 people who come, each with their own hoe. Pots of beer are passed around among the workers every hour. Hunter 1979, 88.

[2] The economic system of the Carolingian Empire is the best example of this, albeit a late one. The agrarian economy of the royal estates and the Carolingian nobility institutionalised the brewing of beer. The Franks promoted the beer in the north of the empire. On the other hand, beer was driven out of the realm of the sacred by the Christians' wine.The collective beer drinking has persisted among the peasant communities of the empire, in Germania, Saxony and Central Europe, often mercilessly fought by a clergy intimately allied to the Carolingian political power.

Selling the traditional beer among the Xhosa people.Article 5 of 5