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An Ancient Grain Finds New Relevance in the Age of the Megadrought

New research suggests that millet could be as influential to the future of farming as it was to its history.
Field of pearl millet. Image: Pixabay.

Millet, a grain familiar to most Americans as birdseed, is set to stage a comeback on modern farms, according to new research led by Cambridge University archaeobotanist Martin Jones.

First domesticated some 10,000 years ago in China, millet was one of the most widely traded and farmed cereal crops of the ancient world, and even made its way into Eurasian folklore. But while it's still a popular grain in parts of Asia and Africa, the use of millet for human food production has fallen off in the Western world in favor of crops like wheat, maize, and rice.


"Today, millet is in decline and attracts relatively little scientific attention, but it was once among the most expansive cereals in geographical terms," said Jones, who is presenting his findings on the grain's origins at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum today, in a statement.

Martin Jones studying modern millet in China. Image: Martin Jones

"We have been able to follow millet moving in deep history, from where it originated in China and spread across Europe and India," he noted. "These findings have transformed our understanding of early agriculture and society. It has previously been assumed that early agriculture was focused in river valleys where there is plentiful access to water. However, 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."

In other words, millet was a boon to nomadic farmers. As Jones and his team discovered, millet turned out to be a perfect crop for these groups of people, who farmed on the road. This was due to the grain's two main superpowers: its preference for drier soil and a very short growing season, which lasts about 45 days from seeding to harvest. For comparison, rice takes about 100 days to mature.

The short growing season allowed nomadic farmers to cultivate the crop during pit stops on long-distance journeys. Jones and his team were able to reconstruct some of these ancient peoples' tracks by rooting out traces of charred millet remains. Radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis of these samples reveal that they date back to between 2500 and 1600 BCE.


But what is perhaps most interesting about the remains left behind by these Neolithic farmers is their experimentation with multi-crop systems. In other words, as millet's influence spread across Eurasia, the grain was integrated into farming systems in which several different types of crops are grown simultaneously in the same fields.

These diverse polycultures of cereals promoted productivity and fertility, which is why so many agricultural specialists—Jones included—advocate that modern farmers revive this method, and oust the current standard of cash crop monocultures.

"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," he said.

"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."

Proso millet used in birdseed. Image: Kurt Stüber

To that point, many specialists have pointed out that millet could be a hugely beneficial crop for farmers to invest in, given that we are entering such an ominous age of megadroughts, water scarcity, and climate change. Millet's high productivity and toleration for drier climates might make it uniquely suited for 21st century farmers.

"Millet has resistance to pests and diseases, short growing season, and productivity under drought conditions, compared to major cereals," wrote the authors of a 2013 study assessing millet farming, published in the journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.

"Therefore, millet grains are now receiving specific attention from these developing countries in terms of utilization as food as well as from some developed countries in terms of its good potential in the manufacturing of bioethanol and biofilms."

In this way, millet may be due for another boom, only this time on a planetary scale. Where the nomadic farmers of ancient Eurasia used the grain's versatility and endurance to extend their fledgling empires, modern farmers may employ it to help sustain the massive global population into the next century, and beyond.

"We need to understand more about millet and how it may be part of the solution to global food security," Jones said. "We may have a lot still to learn from our Neolithic predecessors."