One of the earliest foods to be cultivated by early farmers is called Millet. Basically, millet is a group of about 50 different species of small seed grasses. If you’ve ever bought bird seed then you’ve bought millet as it is mostly composed of this food.
In Asia, India, and Africa millet is s food stable still today but in the western world not so much so. However, if you’ve eaten at some of the top rated restaurants in the west you might find your mashed potatoes topped with a sprinkle of millet and it is also a part of some baby foods on western store shelves too!
Back in 2015 a study was conducted on millet by Archaeology Professor Martin Jones at Cambridge which focused on the origin and spread of millet. Professor Jones won a 2015 Research Award from the Shanghai Archaeological Forum and his research brought some light on millet and its use in the earliest days of agriculture in China.
Using seeds from archaeological sites in China and Mongolia, Professor Jones and his team employed C14 dating and DNA studies and were able to put together a chronology and map showing millet’s relationship to early humans. What they found was that millet became a common food in North China around 7500 kya. Seeds obtained from various sites yielded different ages but they all showed signs of being domesticated and farmed by early human farmers not long after the advent of agriculture! The seeds also showed evidence of getting bigger over time and ancestral skeletal remains of humans who had lived in the areas showed millet was indeed a food staple.
Professor Jones and his team postulated that sometime after 7500 kya millet was brought from the north of China into Central Europe and Asia as well as into India and Siam (modern Thailand) by nomadic peoples who were shepherds and farmers. Jones and his team got to actually see a firsthand account of just how this spread of millet may have happened when they observed Mongol horsemen, who spend most of their lives on horseback, often stop on a plot of land and scatter millet seeds! After a few weeks the horsemen return to harvest the millet which needs very little water to cultivate. Now consider this scenario…..did Mongol horsemen do the same along routes later traveled by Genghis Khan into Europe? Is this millet what the hordes ate? And did Attila the Hun and his soldiers do the same? I think it very possible as what better way to feed large numbers of people than with a food that requires little water and is ready for harvest in just a few weeks! BTW you can cook and eat millet like rice or mash potatoes or make a soup out of it and it is nutritious.
Jones believes different varieties of millet are the perfect bridge between nomadic life and farming life because of their very short growing season (about 45 days). Compare this to about 100 days for growing rice. Further, millet requires very little attention by the farmer so, Jones says, it is ideal for horsemen on the go and their animals too! According to Jones, the Mongol horsemen find a plot of land, spread the seed, and use their horses to trample it into the soil. Sometimes, Jones believes, they may have left a few teenage boys to tend to the crop until the horsemen returned a few weeks later.
Shepherds and nomads would have encountered each other, exchanged grains among other things, and shared advice on how to grow food and hunt animals. Around 2.5-1.6 kya crops once found only in certain places start showing up everywhere! Millet, Professor Jones says, moved into the Fertile Crescent and Levant where wheat and barley were the stables of the time. But, around this same time we also see wheat and barley coming into China! This is evidence for such intercultural exchanges by our early ancestors.
We also see agriculture in China moving out of the mountain foothills and into the valleys. As agriculture moved into new areas there became a need for paleo-farmers to cooperate and form settlements and communities in order to manage their farms. They also had to devise ways to manage water resources. What emerged was multi-crop agriculture.
Professor Jones believes millet gave ancient farmers an appeal because it is a tough crop that produces rapidly and requires little attention or water. Millet is also drought resistant. Even if rains fail millet will usually still produce something. Jones believes this gave early farmers reason to start growing millet. Millet is defiantly not a “cash crop” but it has its uses especially in times of famine and crop failures such as corn or wheat.
From a nutrition point of view millet is high in copper, phosphorus, manganese, and magnesium. It also has a significant amount of protein, calories, carbs, and fiber. It is gluten-free as well. It can be boiled, roasted, or added to breads or other foods.
There are many varieties of millet found around the world so not all originated in China. But Professor Jones’ study was financed and focused on China so he investigated the millet found in that region. I’d pretty much conclude that millet may not be a “cash crop” but it sure looks like a “survival food” to me! 🙂