Researchers have always wanted to know the origin of millet, and how it spread to almost every part of the world despite the fact that its dependence is declining today in the face of other crops such as rice and maize.
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Latest research efforts revealed that our hunter-gatherer ancestors laid the foundation of multi-cropping by carrying millet across Eurasia and then planted it together with other crops when they settled on their journey – creating the needed for a settled population of people that relied on the quick-producing millet for survival.
Millet is almost forgotten in the West today, but its role in ensuring food security in past times cannot be wished away, and it has a contributory role today when issues of food security and crop diversity come up for discussion.
Archaeologists believe millet was first discovered in North China about 10,000 years ago, after which our nomadic ancestors took it across Neolithic Eurasia on their hunting-gathering wanderings across the face of the Earth.
Our early fathers must have mixed millet with other cereals such as barley and wheat – laying the foundation for multi-cropping when societies of people settled down in particular areas. Researchers believe millet was domesticated by our fore-fathers who planted it on hilly locations at the foothills of Eurasia since the cereal requires little water to thrive, and it can be matured and ready for harvest within 45 days after planting, unlike rice that can be up to 100 days.
The quick harvest of millet made it suitable to be transported from North China through Inner Mongolia into Europe between 2500 and 1600 BC. Millet’s domestication and multi-cropping with other cereals created the crop diversity needed to create food security for our ancestors all through the seasons.
"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 Professor Martin Jones from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who is presenting the research findings today at the Shanghai Archaeological Forum.
"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 centered higher up on the foothills – allowing this first pathway for 'exotic' eastern grains to be carried west."
Conducting radiocarbon dating and isotope analysis on burnt millet grains found in archaeological regions of China, researchers were able to establish that millet was domesticated in northern China when rice was being domesticated in south China and barley and wheat in west China.
Jones disclosed that early humans only planted crops whose seeds wouldn’t drop off naturally and that could be harvested in the shortest possible time, ultimately placing the survival of millet in the hands of farmers for thousands of years.
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"This also means that the genetic make-up of these crops changes in response to changes in their environment - in the case of millet, we can see that certain genes were 'switched off' as they were taken by farmers far from their place of origin," Jones explained.