Amerindian brewer peoples from Rio de la Plata 16thArticle 2 of 6 Maize, cassava, sweet potato Amerindian beers in 16th

2 - The farmer-brewers of the Rio Paraná and Paraguay in the 16th century.


Ulrich Schmidel. A 16th engraving from Schmidel's Relation Two important sources let us know what the Amerindians of the Rio de la Plata drank and with what they brewed their traditional beers before the arrival of the Spanish expeditions on their coasts and rivers.

These are the Relation de voyage d'Ulrich Schmidel(Travel Report by Ulrich Schmidel) published in Nuremberg in 1599[1] and the Commentaires d'Alvar Núnez Cabeça de Vaca (Comments by Alvar Núnez Cabeça de Vaca) published in Valladolid in 1555[2].

The chronology of these first conquests covers some twenty years, between 1535 and 1555. The Spaniards went up the rivers and approached Peru, more than 2,000 km between what is now the city of Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia). These journeys towards the North-West coincide with the encounter of peoples with increasingly complex social structures, until they reach the Andean foothills and the influence of the Inca Empire. We will try to verify whether, each time, beer adapted to this increasing social and political complexity in the Amerindian societies of the early 16th century.


Tiembus and Quarandis fighting the first Spanish stronghold of Buenas-AeresThe Amerindian societies that developed until the arrival of Europeans on the shores of Paraná and Paraguay did not all have the same way of life. Some are made up of semi-nomadic groups of hunter-fisher-gatherers. Others have reached the level of social complexity that accompanies the agricultural way of life, sedentary lifestyle, organisation into villages, and the existence of a social hierarchy. The latter societies store the maize grains, cassava tubers or sweet potato tubers that they grow. It is expected that these Amerindian societies not only know how to brew beer, but also how to give this fermented beverage a central social role. The Ulrich Schmidel's and Alvar Núnez's testimonies leave no doubt about this assumption.

The armada[3] led by Pedro de Mendoza left the Spanish port of Cadiz and reached the Rio de la Plata in 1535. Schmidel, a German harquebusier and lansquenet, is on board with 150 other mercenaries from Northern Europe.


Tiembus living along the lower Parana riverThe Spaniards establish themselves by force on the territory of the Querandis who live in the estuary of Paraná. Their main village is conquered. The Spaniards baptise their own camp Nuestra Señora Santa Maria del Buen Ayre. There they starve for more than a year, not knowing how to fish or cultivate local plants, driven to starvation by the Querandis who practice a scorched earth policy[4]. What remains of the Spanish armada owes its survival to the Tiembus Indians, neighbours of the Querandis, forced and provisional allies of the new European comers.


In 1539, a reinforcement of 200 Spaniards arrived from Spain at the Rio de la Plata. An expedition of 400 soldiers commanded by Juan de Ayalas decided to go up the Paraná River. Schmidel takes part in this expedition and tells the story of how the soldiers make sure that the people who live upriver will provide them with food supplies:

Location of the Carios« So our chiefs made us board the brigantines again, and we started to go up the Parana to discover another river, called Parabol [Paraguay], which we had heard about: its banks are inhabited by the Carios Indians. We had been assured that we would find maize, fruit and roots, whose the natives make wine[beer], as well as meat, fish, sheep as big as mules, deer, wild boar, ostriches, chickens and geese in abundance.[5] » (Schmidel, Chap. XVI, Navigation en remontant le Parana jusqu’à Curenda, 69-70)

The "roots whose naturals make wine" refer to cassava or sweet potato. The "wine" refers in fact to beer. The European authors of the 16th century use wine as a generic term for all fermented beverages. The Carios live in the middle course of Paraguay and are among the Amerindian societies of the region (see map). Their farming villages are numerous and their granaries full. The soldiery draw from them shamelessly, sometimes after negotiation with the inhabitants, most often by force. The villages of the Carios brew beer all year round with maize or starchy tubers (manioc, sweet potato), the "roots" that Schmidel talks about in his whole story.

Alvar-Nuñez also notes that the Amerindian peoples settled in the upper reaches of Paraguay make a living from agriculture and have two annual harvests of maize and cassava. Puerto de los Reyes is the name given by the Spaniards to a settlement located far upstream from the city of Asunción, south of the Lago de los Xarayes, the Brazilian region of today's Pantanal:[6]

« The natives of the Port of the Kings [Puerto de los Reyes] are ploughmen; they sow corn and cultivate manioque, which is the cassava of the Indians. They also harvest a lot of mandubies [madubies, mandues, manduis = peanut], similar to hazelnuts. They have two harvests a year. » (Commentaires d'Alvar Núnez, 305)

Of course they brew maize and manioc beers. In January, the river floods the land. In 1543, the Spanish colony of Puerto de los Reyes is decimated by mosquitoes, fevers and diseases. Deprived of grain, one can imagine that instead of drinking beer, it was also forced to drink the contaminated water of the river, worsening its sanitary situation (Commentaires d'Alvar Núnez, 413-414).

Location of the Guaranis amerindians

The Guaranis Indians of the Yguatu river (25° south, now rio Jaurú), east of the Paraguay river are also farmer-breeders:

« According to the report of the natives (later it was discovered that this was true), many villages were to be found on its banks; the inhabitants are the richest in the whole region; the work on the land and the education of the poultry are the causes of this. They raise many geese, chickens and other birds; they have plenty of game, wild boar, deer, tapirs, partridges, quails and pheasants. The river is full of fish. They sow and gather a great quantity of maize, potatoes, cassavas, madubies [peanuts], and many other fruits, and the trees provide them with a great quantity of honey. » (Commentaires d'Alvar Núnez, 75)


This general agricultural prosperity favoured the Amerindian brewery. With several abundant sources of starch-rich plants, the Amerindian peoples of the region developed a rich brewing tradition. Their social life and the rivalries between them also fostered, as we will see, celebrations, collective drinking and the search for ritualized drunkenness.




Alvar Nunez Cabeça de Vaca 1555, Commentaires d'Alvar Nunez Cabeça de Vaca, adelantade et gouverneur du rio de la Plata, rédigés par Pero Hernandez, notaire et secrétaire de la province. Fisrt edition Relacion y Comentarios de Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, de lo acaecido en las dos jornadas que hizo a las Indias, Valladolid 1555.  The Conquest of the river Plate. The Haklyut Society 1891
Beaumont J. A. B. 1828, Travels in Buenos Aires and the Adjacents Provinces of the Rio de la Plata. London.
Bougainville Louis-Antoine, Voyage autour du monde par la frégate du Roi La Boudeuse et la flûte l'Etoile en 1766, 1767, 1768 et 1769. Paris.
Guinnard Auguste, Trois ans chez les Patagons. Le récit de captivité d'Auguste Guinnard (1856-1859). Ed. Chandeigne 2009.
Labrador J. Sanchez 1772, Paraguay catholico (Missiones de los indios Pampas, Puelches, Patagones). Buenos Aires, Viau y zona 1936.
Miers John 1826, Travels in Chile and La Plata. London.
Pigafetta Antonio 1519, Le Voyage de Magellan (1519-1522). La relation d'Antonio Pigafetta & autres témoignages. Ed. Chandeigne 2007.
Salazar-Soler Carmen 1989, Ivresses et visions des Indiens des Andes. Les Jésuites et les enivrements des Indiens du vice-royaume du Pérou (XVIe-XVIIe siècles). In: Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Italie et Méditerranée T. 101, N°2. 1989. pp. 817-838.
Schmidel Ulrich 1534, Histoire véritable d'un voyage curieux fait par Ulrich Schmidel de Straubing, dans l'Amérique et le nouveau monde, par le Brésil et le rio de la Plata, depuis l'année 1534 jusqu'en 1554. Où l'on verra tout ce qu'il a souffert pendant ces dix-neuf ans, et la description des pays et des peuples extraordinaires qu'il a visités. Paris 1837 (selon l'édition de 1599 parue à Nuremberg avec corrections des noms des villes, de pays et de rivières par Levinus Hulsius, Trad. française de H. Ternaux-Compans) - True story of a curious journey made by Ulrich Schmidel de Straubing, in America and the new world, through Brazil and the Rio de la Plata, from the year 1534 until 1554<. Where we will see everything he suffered during these nineteen years, and the description of the extraordinary countries and peoples he visited. Paris 1837 ( based on the 1599 edition published in Nuremberg with corrections of the names of cities, countries and rivers by Levinus Hulsius, French translation by H. Ternaux-Compans).


[1] Schmidel is a keen observer during his 20-year journey among the Amerindians. He was a mercenary of German origin in the service of the Flemish bank merchants Welzer and Niedhart (The Conquest of the River Plate (1535-1555), Translated for the Hakluyt Society, London 1891, Hakluyt Works no. 81, p. XXV). He was not involved in the Spanish-Portuguese conflicts. His account claims no interest towards the Spanish crown by virtue of often fictitious military exploits recounted by the conquistadors. Schmidel claims no rights over Amerindian lands or conquered populations, other than that of enslaving those who are defeated. He does not hide the material aid (food and labour) provided by the Amerindians, nor their warlike support in defeating other hostile ethnic groups, nor the unjustified brutality and cruelty of the Spanish captains. His relation, published in a Protestant country around 1567 (see Hakluyt introduction p. XV-XVI), has not been censured by the Catholic Roman Church. Schmidel was probably not a simple soldier but also and agent working for Flemish merchants who has been granted commercial rights by Charles V onto this newly conquered countries by the Crown of Spain.
[2] Alvar Nuñez disembarked in 1540 on Santa Catalina Island (Santa Catarina in Brazil), crossed the Guaraní territory by land to reach Asunción on the Paraguay River, and then explored himself or ordered to explore the upper reaches of this river. He had the Commentaries written for his defence before the Council of the Indies, after being driven out of the new colony by his own captains in 1543 and forcibly brought back to Spain.
[3] 14 large ships, 2500 men, 72 horses and mares left Spain in 1534 to conquer and populate new lands. And among them, 150 German, Flemish and Saxon mercenaries embarked to make their fortunes, including Ulrich Schmidel. All of them were recruited from the vast European empire led by Charles V (r. 1516-1556), hence this motley mix of nations.
[4] The Spanish expeditions only took soldiers, sailors and naval carpenters on board. Due to the lack of peasants, the Spaniards did not know how to cultivate the Amerindian plants. They organised their survival by plundering the reserves of Amerindian villages or by enslaving their inhabitants, forcing them to cultivate for them. Schmidel reveals the details of this strategy and how the Amerindians defended themselves. The first settlement of Buenos Ayres in 1535 was a failure: " Don Pèdre de Mendoce [Pedro de Mendoza], seeing that his troops were diminishing every day due to the lack of livelihood, decided to hastily build four small vessels, of the type known as brigantines. These vessels are rowed, and can carry about forty men. He also ordered to build three rowboats.
As soon as these boats were built and equipped, our general gathered his troops, and sent them off with three hundred and fifty men, under the command of George Luxan, to whom he gave the order to go up the river, and to seek food from the Indians [this means plundering their villages]. But the Indians, having been warned of our arrival, thought that the best way to get rid of us would be to burn their villages, their provisions, everything that might be of use to us, and withdraw inland [far from the rivers on which the brigantines sailed]. We could not find food anywhere. Only three and a half ounces of flour was distributed to each man a day, so that on this journey half of our companions died of hunger
" (Schmidel, 47-48). We understand that the death of the troops was caused by the improvidence of the Spaniards and general incompetence, more than by the aggressiveness of the so-called "savage Indian tribes" who preferred to flee to protect their women and children.
[5] Schmidel regularly mentions the abundance of fauna which he describes with his European vocabulary. The mule is the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), the deer is the marsh deer (pukú guazú), the boar is the peccary or the tapir, the ostrich is the nandu, the goose is the turkey, the hare is the mara or the capybara.
[6] The accounts of the Spanish conquistadors are full of acts of cities foundation. In most cases, they were content to plant a cross and give a Christian name to existing cities that had been built and inhabited by Amerindians for a long time. Schmidel's testimony is edifying on this point. He describes the Amerindian fortified villages built on hills, gives their approximate size, and estimates the number of their inhabitants at 3000 on average.
Amerindian brewer peoples from Rio de la Plata 16thArticle 2 of 6 Maize, cassava, sweet potato Amerindian beers in 16th