Washington D.C.: Now a forgotten crop in the West, Millet, a cereal familiar today as birdseed, is the missing link in prehistoric humans' transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer, according to a new study.
The University of Cambridge research shows millet was carried across Eurasia by ancient shepherds and herders laying the foundation, in combination with the new crops they encountered, of 'multi-crop' agriculture and the rise of settled societies. Archaeologists say the 'forgotten' millet has a role to play in modern crop diversity and today's food security debate.
The domestication of the small-seeded cereal millet in North China around 10,000 years ago created the perfect crop to bridge the gap between nomadic hunter-gathering and organised agriculture in Neolithic Eurasia and may offer solutions to modern food security, according to the study.
Researcher Martin Jones said that it has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys, where there is plentiful access to water. But millet remains show that the first agriculture was instead centred higher up on the foothills, allowing this first pathway for 'exotic' eastern grains to be carried west.
But the significance of millet is not just in transforming our understanding of our prehistoric past. Jones believes that millet and other small-seeded crops may have an important role to play in ensuring future food security.
"The focus for looking at food security today is on the high-yield crops, rice, maize and wheat, which fuel 50 percent of the human food chain. However, these are only three of 50 types of cereal, the majority of which are small-grained cereals or "millets". It may be time to consider whether millets have a role to play in a diverse response to crop failure and famine," said Jones.
The study will be presented at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum.