Thursday, April 7, 2016

Millet and the Agricultural Revolution

Fig.1. Professor Martin Jones with millet in north China
Credit: Martin Jones)

Editor’s Note: Our Food Security Symposium has been postponed until September 2016. Please email us at with any questions or join our mailing-list for routine updates on the new symposium. 

Millet’s Long History

Recent research suggests that common millet (Panicum miliaceum) - often used as birdseed today - may have bridged the gap between nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures and agrarian societies in Neolithic Eurasia, holding possible lessons for current food security challenges.

Martin Jones, a professor at the University of Cambridge, and an international team of scientists examined ancient and modern varieties of common millet to trace the crop’s history though time and across space. Their genetic analyses of modern millet types, as well as an examination of millet grains recovered from archaeological sites across China and Inner Mongolia, revealed a journey out of northern China to Eurasia between 2500 and 1600 BC.

Jones and his colleagues think that nomadic hunter-gatherers brought millet out of northern China as a supplemental food source. The short growing season and drought tolerance of millet made it an easily transportable crop that ultimately reached agrarian communities in the Near East. Farmers could grow the new crop alongside wheat and barley, diversifying food sources and lengthening growing seasons. The researchers suggested that this increased food security provided the basis for growing populations and ultimately a division of social status.

Fig.2. Map of the world showing approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread: eastern USA (4000-3000 BP), Central Mexico (5000-4000 BP), South America (5000-4000 BP), the Fertile Crescent (11000 BP), and the Yangtze and Yellow River basins (9000 BP) (Credit: Joey Roe, 2010)

A Slow Revolution

In addition to showing how nomadic and largely hunter-gatherer groups interacted with more agrarian societies, this research changes our understanding of where plants were domesticated. Previously, scientists thought that crops were mostly domesticated in river valleys with plenty of access to water. Common millet, however, became a staple for semiarid regions in Asia. This raises questions about why and how certain crops developed.

Common millet was domesticated during the Neolithic Revolution (also called the Agricultural Revolution) around 10,000 years ago. This wide-scale transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agrarian was not so much a “revolution” as it was a slow development over thousands of years. Domesticated animals and plants allowed humans to settle in larger and larger groups. Areas like Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, and the Yellow River basin in China gave rise to some of the first examples of agriculture and civilization.

At our Food Security Symposium in May, we will address related questions regarding the Agricultural Revolution. Answers to these questions may hold lessons for the future:

  • Why were certain crops and livestock domesticated?
  • What sorts of environmental drivers, such as drier soil for millet, affected the success or failure of food sources?
  • When domesticated food sources were successfully integrated, how did the pressure on other food sources change?
  • How did the integration of domesticated food sources create the concept of food security?

Next up: Join us for article on the Industrial Revolution, which saw the rapid growth of urban populations, the mechanization of agriculture, and a sharp increase in demand for food.

Diamond, J., & Bellwood, P. (2003). Farmers and Their Languages: The First Expansions. Science, vol. 300 (5619): 597-603. Doi: 10.1126/science.1078208

Lu, H., et al. (2009, May 5). Earliest domestication of common millet (Panicum miliaceum) in East Asia extended to 10,000 years ago. PNAS, vol. 106 (18): 7367-7372. doi:10.1073/pnas.0900158106

University of Cambridge, EurekAlert! (2015, December 15). Millet: The missing link in prehistoric humans’ transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer. [Press release]. Retrieved from


The Neolithic Period, or the New Stone Age, was a period of development of human technology and agriculture between about 10,000 BC and 4,500 BC.