Discovery of Millet in Bronze Age Mesopotamia Changes Understanding of Early Farming

Not only were the Mesopotamians growing millet, a thirsty summer crop, before the Neo-Assyrians introduced irrigation: They were early adopters of multi-cropping at least 3,500 years ago

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Millet grains
Millet grains can be hard to spot in archaeological contexts especially after being eaten by a goat or a sheep.Credit: Olena Ukhova / Shutterstock
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

It gets hot in Mesopotamia. Today better known as Iraq and Kuwait, the winters bring the region the balm of rain and, in this era of climate change, some surprisingly intense flooding. But the summers are brutal. Hence it was a surprise to some archaeologists that millet, a thirsty summer crop, turns out to have been farmed in Mesopotamia in the Bronze Age, centuries before the advent of large-scale irrigation. Millet is a hardy plant that can withstand much misery, but still.

Moreover, the Mesopotamians were growing their millet in the same fields where they would grow other crops in other seasons, an international team led by environmental archaeologist Elise Jakoby Laugier of Rutgers University reveals in Nature Science Reports. This practice was a very early example of the agricultural technique called multi-cropping,

There had been already some signs that millet had reached Mesopotamia early. However, now decisive micro-botanical evidence of early broomcorn millet cultivation in Kurdistan, northern Iraq has been detected in "dung-rich" sediments at a site named Khani Masi. It dates to around 3,500 years ago. Ergo, whatever humans themselves made of this bitter little grain, it was also fed to animals.

This discovery shows that millet cultivation predated the construction of centrally-controlled irrigation systems under the Neo-Assyrian Empire by centuries, the team says.

To other archaeologists, such as the authors, the revelation that there was millet cultivation in Bronze Age Mesopotamia was not a mental earthquake.

Millet, which really prefers a nice wet summer, but is doughty in droughtCredit: krolya25 / Shutterstock.com

“The surprising part is that despite the textual evidence and some patchy botanical evidence, some archaeobotanists still do not think millet was grown in Mesopotamia during the second millennium B.C.E.,” Laugier says. Indeed there had been some finds indicating the presence of millet preceding the great irrigation systems, but these observations had, until now, been interpreted either as signals of exotic imports or as a niche crop.

What is the textual reference to millet in Mesopotamia? For instance, letters from Tel Seh Hamad dating to the 13th-12th centuries B.C.E. mention the grain – as well as locusts and another exotic import, sesame, according to the Israeli researcher Yigal Bloch.

The bottom line in the archaeo-millet wars is that this nutritious grain had been left out of the models of Mesopotamian food systems and shouldn’t be, Laugier sums up.

“What we are saying, and other people who study millet have discussed, is that even a low-level production of millet can have a big impact on the sustainability of farming systems. And in Mesopotamia, especially the Zagros region, there are plenty of year-round water sources that would have allowed this low-level cultivation,” Laugier elaborates.

Cooked millet. This is what it looks likeCredit: Moti Milrod

Finding feral millet

Subsistence agriculture, as opposed to the odd stab at cultivating this or that plant, is believed to have begun in the Fertile Crescent around 11,000 years ago, starting with wheat, barley, beans and some other crops, which grow in the rainy season, i.e., winter.

Millet, on the other hand, was apparently first domesticated in eastern Asia, aka China, though when is not clear. Some think it may be as much as 10,000 years ago, some think only about 8,000 years ago; other millet species – there are several – were domesticated in Africa, rather later. Finger millet was domesticated in Africa about 4,500 years ago and sorghum even earlier, about 5,000 years ago. Millet and sorghum are sometimes confused, partly because both are naturally gluten-free, but they are not the same.

During the Neolithic revolution, prehistoric peoples domesticated local feral plants. Millet was not and is not a feral plant in Iraq, which has dry summers. Unlike the early Near Eastern crops such as wheat, millet likes wet summer weather, specifically 120 millimeters of rain during the season. However, millet has evolved considerable tolerance for drought.

So, on the one hand, the thinking had been that the Mesopotamians only began seriously growing millet after the Neo-Assyrian Empire developed large-scale irrigation systems in the mid-first millennium B.C.E., about 2,500 years ago. The irrigation systems were fed by the great rivers and mountain aquifers.

On the other hand, China and Mesopotamia are in the same continental mass; we know people have been getting about since feet were invented, and trading for thousands and thousands of years. If anything, Laugier agrees, one might expect the Mesopotamians to have encountered and embraced millet long before 2,500 years ago – and, we now learn, they did.

Millet originated in Eastern Asia: Girls in Paiwanese costumes with millet crowns during harvest festival in Taipei, July 2001Credit: Jerome Favre / AP Photo

East Asian crops like millet reached southwest Asia and Europe, and wheat and barley went the other way. Wheat and barley reached China for the first time between 4,500 to 3,500 years ago, Laugier confirms. By about 3,500 years ago, the “Trans-Eurasian exchange” was complete, she adds.

Unexpectedly wise

All this then begs the question of why early millet cultivation in Mesopotamia hasn’t been noticed before.

One plausible explanation is that other archaeologists simply missed the signs. Millet grains are really small. Another is that fragile millet grains do not often survive digestion, by us or sheep and goats, which had been domesticated in the region thousands of years earlier and were evidently fed millet. Even if some of the wee grains survived the caprine and ovine intestinal tracts, the Mesopotamians burned animal dung for fuel.

And, not only was millet being grown, pampered by irrigation. The team concluded that the Mesopotamians were growing the millet in summer in the same fields in which they’d grow other grains like wheat in winter.

Millet in the field.Credit: Raju Jangid

They were, in a word, wisely multi-cropping, which means using the same land to grow different things in different seasons. It enables optimal use of the land resource and diversifies subsistence strategies, not only for people but for their animals as well. And since Mesopotamia was not the ideal location for water-loving summer crops, multi-cropping only became possible when these plants were imported from eastern Asia.

This pastoral-related multi-cropping in Bronze Age Mesopotamia may have provided a key impetus to agricultural intensification in the first millennium B.C.E., the researchers posit.

This evidence isn’t the earliest one of multi-cropping, though it isn’t far off. The practice seems to have begun in central Asia. Asked if there is evidence of early multi-cropping in the Middle East as well in the second millennium B.C.E., that’s apparently a “no.” “However, there is a lot of evidence that Israel was highly connected with the globalized trade networks of the time,” Laugier adds – which among other things brought another summer crop, sesame, to the region.

What are we to make of this? That there is more to learn about dietary habits in the ancient world than meets the eye, and sometimes a microscope is necessary too. The researchers identified the early presence of millet in Mesopotamia by means of phytolith analysis, and their discovery not only indicates that the little grain was more widespread than had been assumed; it may have played a more important role than conventionally thought.

Making fufu from millet in Africa.Credit: Liberty photography

Today, western societies largely scorn the grain. Being gluten-free is trendy, but there’s a snag. It tastes horrible if not treated properly, and if there’s millet anywhere in the American household, it’s probably in the bird-feeder – yes, that’s what the tiny little yellowish seeds you’re feeding to the squirrels are. The western palate prefers rice and wheat.

But as drought becomes more common in the global breadbaskets, diversification may become more important than ever before. Some think millet, which adores a wet summer but is a hardy botanical beast, may be just the ticket.

So how can you cook millet and render it palatable? Here’s a tip: wash it before cooking, until the water runs clear. One washes precooked rice to get rid of arsenic; one washes millet, a lot, because otherwise it may taste unpleasantly bitter. Also, when you get to the stage of actually cooking it, stir it frequently. Very frequently. It can get gloopy and burn very easily. Now you know.

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