The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications



Other Names


Akha (Quechua, colonial period), asua (Quichua), cachir, cachiri, catchir, cono (Secoya), corn beer, kashiri, kasuma (Zapara), maisbier, nijiamanch (Achuar/Shuar), tepae (Huaorani), tesguino, tesvino, tizwin, tsetsepa (Kofán), tulpi


Chicha is produced primarily from maize/corn (Zea mays), tubers, and fruits. The substance to be fermented is always mashed with water; in other words, chicha is actually a beer.

Maize beer is brewed in the American Southwest, for example by the Apaches (Hrdlicka 1904). In Central and South America, chicha made from maize has been known from time immemorial and has long been valued as both a food and an inebriant. Other plants believed to improve fermentation or to protect the grains of maize are sometimes added during the preparation of the drink. In Peru, the leaves of certain ferns (Thelypteris glandulosolanosa [C. Chr.] Tyron, Thelypteris rufa [Poiret] A.R. Smith) are used for this purpose (Franquemont et al. 1990, 40*). There, chicha is made primarily from the fruit pods of Prosopis pallida.

In the Amazon region of Ecuador, the fruits of the chonta palm (Bactris gasipaës) are boiled and fermented to make chicha. The tree’s extremely hard wood is used to make bows, spears, arrowheads, and the small, magical shamanic arrows that are used mainly for black magic and during shamanic wars.

In Colombia, chicha is made from a type of corn known as maíz blanda. The kernels of maize are ground with a stone pestle, soaked in diluted sugarcane molasses (aguamiel, “honey water”), and allowed to ferment for twelve days. Magical additives such as ground bones, rat skulls, or cow’s skin are often added to the brew (cf. zombie poison). During fermentation, the corn gluten can produce ptomaine, a toxic substance that can produce undesired side effects (cf. Zea mays).

In Central and South America, chicha is also prepared from various palms (cf. palm wine). The fruits of the following palms are used in the preparation of chicha (after Vickers and Plowman 1984*):


Bactris gasipaës H.B.K.

Jessenia bataua (Mart.) Burret

Mauritia flexuosa L.

Mauritia minor Burret (chicha de canaguche)


The palm fruits are first boiled and then usually pressed, soaked in water, and allowed to ferment.

Chile is a veritable land of chicha. In Santiago de Chile, the name chicha is now used for freshly fermented apple cider (Seeler 1994, 247). In rural and Indian regions, chicha is a catchall term given to all fermented beverages, especially aqueous fruit solutions (see the table on page 740). The chicha de algarrobo is very popular. Interestingly, the algarrobo tree (Prosopis chilensis [Mol.] Stuntz), the sweet fruit pods of which are fermented to prepare the drink, is also called tacuhuancu, and huilca in Peru. These same names are given to Anadenanthera colubrina (Mösbach 1992, 84*).

Some Chilean types of chicha are attributed with medicinal qualities; those from huighan or huighnan (Schinus dependens Orteg.), for example, have strong diuretic properties and are consumed by people suffering from dropsy (Schultes 1980, 106*). A chicha prepared from the pepper tree (Schinus molle) has potent stimulating and possibly other psychoactive effects, as the essential oils of the fruit include β-phellandrene, α-pinene, carvacrol, o-ethylphenol, β-pinene, camphene, myrcene, α-phellandrene, limonene, π-cymene, and β-spathulene (Terhune et al. 1974). The chicha prepared from Schinus molle is also used to treat dropsy.


An Indian chicha merchant (drawing from Mortimer, History of Coca, 1901).



The hard fruit pods of the Chilean algarrobo (Prosopis chilensis) contain a large amount of sugar and are thus suitable for preparing fermented drinks.



In southern South America, many species from the genus Prosopis are used to brew a drink similar to chicha. (Photographed in southern Chile)



In southern Chile, the starchy, sugary sprouts of the primordial monkey puzzle (araucarie) tree (Araucaria araucana) are fermented to produce chicha. (Photographed in southern Chile)



The people who live in the oases of the Atacama Desert use the ripe fruits of the unusual chañar tree (Geoffrea decorticans), which contains large amounts of chlorophyll in its bark, as an ingredient in brewing. (Wild plant, photographed in San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile)



The fruits of Gaultheria phillyreifolia are used on the southern Chilean island of Chiloé for brewing chicha. (Wild plant, photographed near Ancud, Chiloé)



Known as red pepper, the seeds of the molle tree (Schinus molle) are used as a fermentation substance and as a spicy beer additive. (Wild plant, photographed in San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile)



The fruits of the Chilean barberry (Berberis darwinii) are used to brew chicha.



The people of Chiloé use the sweet fruits of the Chilean guava (Ugni molinae) to make chicha. (Wild plant, photographed near Ancud, Chiloé)


“[W]e drink simply because we like to, and we vomit because it is fun for us.”








In South America, several trees from the Family Leguminosae that are widely referred to as algarrobo yield fruit pods that are used to make fermented drinks (chicha). (From Pedro de Montenegro, Materia médica misionera, seventeenth century)


Sometimes admixtures are used to alter the taste or the effect of chicha. In the Colombian Vaupés region, the dried greenish yellow flowers of Duguetia odorata (Diels) Macbride (Annonaceae) are used to perfume (and strengthen?) chicha. The plant is rich in alkaloids (Schultes and Raffauf 1986, 259*). In the same region, the powdered flowers of Heterostemon mimosoides Desf. are also used as an aromatic additive to the drink (Schultes 1978b, 231*). The Barasa Indians add the powdered bark of Vochysia lomatophylla Standl., known locally as ka-kwee’-gaw-ya, as an abortifacient (Schultes 1977b, 117*). A wide variety of other psychoactive plants may also be added to chicha (see the table on page 741).



See also the entries for beer.


Caspar, Franz. 1952. Die Tupari, ihre Chicha-Braumethode und ihre Gemeinschaftsarbeit. Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 77 (2): 245–60.


Cutler, Hugh C., and Martin Cardenas. 1947. Chicha, a native South American beer. Botanical Museum Leaflets 13 (3): 33–60.


Gómez Parra, Domingo, and Eva Siarez Flores. 1995. Alirrrerunción tradicionál atacameña. Antofagasta, Chile: Fondart.


Hartmann, Günther. 1958. Alkoholische Getränke bei den Naturvölkern Südamerikas. Diss., Berlin.


———. 1960. Alkoholische Getränke bei den südamerikanischen Naturvölkern. Baessler-Archiv 8 (1).



“When the inhabitants of the river-filled forests and meadows no longer felt like hunting and gathering, they lived from their reserves, drank home-brewed stimulants, and indulged in polygamy. Hate and jealousy began to creep around the Rucas, and depravity raised its ugly face. Then the giant serpent Caicaivilu awoke from its thousand-year sleep and roused up the wind and the sea so that they would destroy the land. Hurricanes laid waste to the forest, earthquakes in the ocean caused tidal waves. Humans and animals fled to the mountaintops and fought each other for a safe haven. The giant serpent Tentenvilu, who slumbered in the ancient cordilleras, was also awoken by the chaotic din. It realized the distress of the besieged and pushed the mountains upward with all its strength as the ocean rose ever higher. The battle of the enemy serpents lasted for moons upon moons. Then the god Ngenechen intervened, neutralized the battle, and brought the wrathful nature to a standstill. The gulfs, fjords, canals, and islands remained from the waters of the evil serpent and the earth masses of the good serpent.”




———. 1981. Alkoholische Getränke bei den südamerikanischen Indianern. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:152–62. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Hrdlicka, A. 1904. Method of preparing tesvino among the White River Apaches. American Anthropologist, n.s., 6:190–91.


Karsten, Rafael. 1920. Berauschende und narkotische Getränke unter den Indianern Südamerikas. Acta Acad. Åboensis.


Lomnitz, L. 1973. Influencia de los cambios políticos y económicos en la ingestión de alcohol: el caso Mapuche. América Indígena 33 (1): 133–50.


Moore, Jerry D. 1989. Pre-Hispanic beer in coastal Peru: Technology and social context of prehistoric production. American Anthropologist, n.s., 91:682–95.


Mowat, Linda. 1989. Cassava and chicha: Bread and beer of the Amazonian Indians. Aylesbury, U.K.: Shire Ethnography.


Nachtigall, Horst. 1954. Koka und Chicha. Kosmos 50 (9): 423–27.


Nicholson, G. Edward. 1960. Chicha maize types and chicha manufacture in Peru. Economic Botany 14 (4): 290–99.


Scheffer, Karl-Georg. 1981. Chicha in Südamerika. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1: 146–51. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Seeler, Rolf. 1994. Chile mit Osterinsel. Cologne: DuMont.


Terhune, Stuart J., James W. Hogg, and Brian M. Lawrence. 1974. β-spathulene: A new sesquiterpene in Schinus molle oil. Phytochemistry 13:865–66.


Vásquez, Mario. 1967. La chicha en los países andinos. Ámérica Indígena 27 (2): 265–82.