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This Ancient Grain May Have Helped Humans Become Farmers

Millet’s short growing season and low water needs might also benefit a modern world stressed by climate change

A women harvests millet in Arunachal Pradesh, India (Yvan Travert/Photononstop/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

When asked to name important crops grown around the world, most people would probably rattle off rice, wheat and corn. Millet, a tiny round grain most familiar to Americans as birdseed, probably won’t make many lists.

Yet new research suggests that this cereal was one of the most important crops of the ancient world, providing a bridge between nomadic, hunter-gather societies and more complex agricultural ones.

Researchers based in the U.S., U.K. and China pieced together the history of millet by dating the charred remains of the grain found at archeological sites in China and Inner Mongolia. The results were reported this week at the Shanghai Archeological Forum, according to a press release

The crop was first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in northern China, around the same time as rice was domesticated in southern China and barley and wheat in western China. Shepherds and herders probably carried the grain across Eurasia between 2,500 and 1,600 B.C.

The grain’s short growing season of 45 days (compared to 100 days for rice to mature) made it easy to grow when semi-nomadic groups paused in one area for a short time. Millet also tolerates more marginal land in the foothills and doesn’t need as much water.

"It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water," team member Martin Jones of the University of Cambridge said in the press release. 

The team’s DNA analysis of modern millet varieties supports this picture of the ancient grain’s spread. Their timeline also lines up with previous research on early millet cultivation.

The team’s analysis shows that millet was farmed along with other grains, such as barely, all in the same fields, reports Becky Ferreira for Motherboard. This multi-cropping system helped early farmers weather rough seasons—if one grain didn’t do well, perhaps another could cope with the conditions. 

Despite millet’s importance today in the diets of people in Africa and Asia (especially Nigeria, Niger and India) the crop doesn’t benefit from the research attention and dollars that corn, rice and wheat garner, scientists from Canada and the U.K. note in a 2007 paper.

Yet some of the same strengths that made ancient herders choose to cultivate the grain might make it more popular on modern tables. A 2013 study touts millet’s resistance to pests and diseases as well as its short growing season and drought tolerance. Those benefits could make the cereal valuable in a world stressed by climate change, Jones says in the press release.

"We may have a lot still to learn from our Neolithic predecessors," he says.

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