Beijing: First domesticated in China, the hardy grain millet — familiar in the west today as birdseed — was carried across Eurasia by ancient shepherds and herders, laying the foundation of ‘multi-crop’ agriculture and the rise of settled societies, says a study.
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, the study said.
This hardy grain was ideal for ancient shepherds and herders, who carried it right across Eurasia, where it was mixed with crops such as wheat and barley. This gave rise to ‘multi-cropping’, which in turn sowed the seeds of complex urban societies, the archaeologists noted.
The team of researchers from Britain, US and China has traced the spread of the domesticated grain from North China and Mongolia into Europe through a “hilly corridor” along the foothills of Eurasia.
Millet favours uphill locations, doesn’t require much water, and has a short growing season — it can be harvested 45 days after planting, compared with 100 days for rice, allowing a very mobile form of cultivation.
Nomadic tribes were able to combine growing crops of millet with hunting and foraging as they travelled across the continent between 2500 and 1600 BC.
Millet was eventually mixed with other crops in emerging populations to create ‘multi-crop’ diversity, which extended growing seasons and provided our ancient ancestors with food security, the researchers pointed out.
“Today millet is in decline and attracts relatively little scientific attention, but it was once among the most expansive cereals in geographical terms. We have been able to follow millet moving in deep history, from where it originated in China and spread across Europe and India,” said Martin Jones from University of Cambridge.
“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,” Jones noted.
The findings were presented at Shanghai Archaeological Forum on Sunday.