Why is the North American case so significant?Article 3 of 18 Ancestral Pueblos, Zuňi and Hopi in the Southwest

The question is not new. The supposed virtual absence of indigenous fermented beverages in North America was already noted by historians and ethnologists in the 19th century. They were concerned about the historical clues of maize beers, fruit wines, agave or sap wines existences. Valery Havard perfectly summarised the problem in 1896:

« The cultivation of Maize, as we know, spread rapidly northward from Mexico, so that even before the days of Columbus it was the principal crop of all the agricultural Indians from the Rio Grande to the St. Lawrence and from the Atlantic to the Colorado of the West. Considering the abundance of corn among our Indians, and their craving for all intoxicants, it seems almost incomprehensible that the primitive and very simple art of making corn beer should never have found its way north of the Rio-Grande. » (Havard 1896, 35). Havard had already narrowed down the range of Native American beers to maize beer, although the literature in the 19th century mentions the brewing of cassava, sweet potato and carob beers by Native Americans in the southwest and southeast. North American researchers are obsessed with maize chicha and often ignore or neglect beers brewed with other starchy plants.

The European colonisation flooded North America with beer and distilled spirits to which the Amerindians became partly addicted. This addiction can be explained by the fact that they were not accustomed to alcohol and had no alcoholic beverages before the arrival of the Europeans. There are other, deeper reasons for this: the social breakdown of the Amerindian tribes faced with epidemics and the deadly shock of colonisation[1].

Some peoples in New Mexico and Arizona (Pueblos, Hopi, Zuňi) brewed maize beer before the arrival of Europeans, others more recently (Apaches, Navajos, Comanches). Where did this technique come from? From the peoples of Mexico, admittedly : Tarahumara, Pima, Papago, and their more ancient Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi ancestors. However, if the Apaches from the Great Plains adopted maize beer centuries ago[2], why did this technique not spread among the other North American Indian tribes practising agriculture around the 16th century? [3]


Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon and Patayan cultures around 1100 in the southwest of North America and northeast of Mexico. These farmers cultivated maize, other grasses, squash and beans. They are also known as the Ancestral Puebloan People. Various cultural traits link them to Mesoamerican cultures (agriculture, urban life, hierarchical social structures, fertility cults, trade in prestige products such as cocoa or precious stones).
Cultures Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon et Patayan vers 1100


Since Valery Havard, the data have accumulated :

-      The American and Mexican archaeologists uncovering the distant North American past and the shared history of the cultures and peoples inhabiting Mexico and the present-day southern United States before the colonial era.

-      The ethnohistory of plants is now better known. Small, primitive maize cobs have been found at five different sites in New Mexico and Arizona. The climatic range of the sites is wide as they range from the Tucson basin in the Arizona desert (700 m), to a rocky cave on the Colorado plateau (2200 m). The primitive maize they grew was already adapted to being grown in both hot and dry and short-season climates, which postulates a secondary cradle of food plant domestication in the American Southwest (Merrill & al. 2009)[4].

-      A better knowledge of the first Spanish, French and English explorations of the 16th and 17th centuries through the publication and study of important historical texts.

-      A questioning of Native American societies free of colonial clichés presenting Indians as primitives devoid of any advanced society. The discovery of the Ancient Pueblos and the excavation of the great mounds of Cahokia in Mississippi revealed highly developed Amerindian societies and complex social structures that contradicted the primitivist vision of the European colonists.

Do these new data make it possible to reopen the file of Amerindian fermented beverages, to question their history, their presence or absence on the whole of the North American sub-continent?

[1] “Before Columbus arrived on the shores of the Western hemisphere, there were an estimated 4.4 to 12.25 million indigenous people living in what is now the United States (Thornton, 1987). After about 400 hundred years of colonization, the native population reached a nadir of only 250,000 in 1900 (Thornton). Fortunately, native populations recovered somewhat after 1900, and currently there are about 4.1 million Native Americans living within the United States (Ogonswole, 2002).” (Szlemko & al. 2006, 439)

[2] The Apache, along with the Navajo, are of Athabaskan origin (North-Western Canada-Alaska today), a common origin based upon linguistic features. Migrating southward along the Pacific coast and Rocky ranges, they arrived late in the Southwest between 1000-1550 A.D. in what is now Arizona, New-Mexico, Sonora and Chihuahua (Josephy, 1991). In Abbott Patrick 1996, p. 3. American Indian and Alaska native aboriginal use of alcohol in the United States

[3] The Great Plains were inhabited by nomadic buffalo hunters between the Mississippi and the Rockies. But other sedentary peoples (Mandan, Arikara) along the rivers practised the Three Sisters agriculture in the same region, a way of life that could made them also beer brewers. It should be noted that the Hohokam knew how to engrave conches with acid obtained by fermenting the juice of the fruits of the pitaya cactus (Hylocereus undatus), a technique that implies a lactic fermentation preceded by alcoholic fermentation.

Why is the North American case so significant?Article 3 of 18 Ancestral Pueblos, Zuňi and Hopi in the Southwest