Far Eastern innovation

An early superfood, broomcorn millet found its way into the central European diet 3,500 years ago — millennia after Neolithic farmers had begun to plant emmer and einkorn. We were able to establish this fact by means of our large-scale dating programme and its analysis of tiny grains of millet.

Unlike emmer and einkorn — archaic forms of wheat originating in the area north of the Arabian Peninsula known as the fertile crescent — the origins of millet lie in the Far East, in modern China. Via the Caucasus, it reached the Black Sea and the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age, with the earliest finds in the region dating from around 1600 BCE. By 1200 BCE it had been introduced to central and northern European.

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    How do archaeologists date their findings?

  • Radiocarbon dating is an archaeological method for determining the age of organic material. There are three naturally occurring carbon isotopes, 12C, 13C and 14C.

  • 14C is formed largely in the upper reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, in the stratosphere, when the neutrons in cosmic radiation collide with nitrogen atoms (14N) in the air to form 14C. 14C is then oxidised to CO2, is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and then by animals through the food chain. This means that the proportion of 14C, in spite of radioactive decay, remains nearly constant while an organism is alive.

  • When an organism dies, however, it ceases to exchange 14C with the atmosphere and the 14C stored within it decays with a half-life of 5,730 years. Adjusting for the fluctuating concentration of atmospheric 14C, this allows organic material to be dated with some precision.

  • The method used today for measuring the remaining concentration of 14C and thereby the age of organic material is accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), which measures the ratio of 14C to 12C by detecting the isotopes themselves.

    This proved invaluable to our large-scale project for dating broomcorn millet grains, for only AMS allows even tiny samples containing less than one milligram of carbon to be dated.

How can archaeologists even identify millet?

Plant remains may be preserved for millennia in fireplaces, storage pits and rubbish tips — usually in a charred state, which keeps them from being turned into compost by microorganisms. Such remains are often left by burning during cooking or by smouldering fires within settlements. Charred broomcorn millet grains can be found in soil samples from archaeological digs, often baked to charred gruel.

Aside from these macroscopic remains, broomcorn millet can also be identified in microscopic form. The cells forming the grain husks contain minute, distinctively shaped particles of a glass-like substance known as phytoliths. Since these minute silicates are inorganic, they do not decompose and can remain traceable in the soil for thousands of years.

Black diamonds

Bucket flotation

Millet today

A new hope

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2023 the “International Year of Millets”, a measure intended to support indigenous populations. In such places as Nagaland, millets formed a part of people’s traditional diet before being displaced by rice, a cash crop. Millet is now being rediscovered and its cultivation supported by organisations including North East Network Nagaland, a women’s rights charity.

More generally, the UN resolution is meant to raise public awareness of millet’s many advantages. Millet is nutritious and versatile, needing seventy per cent less water than rice and growing in half the time of wheat — and using forty per cent less energy in processing. Millets are an all-round solution in times of climate change, sinking water levels and drought. They are gluten free, easily digested, strengthen the body’s immune system and can help to prevent malnutrition in children and anaemia caused by iron deficiency.