The cultural history of the millet: More than just bird seed

VBefore the triumphant advance of the potato, millet counted (Panicum miliaceum) also in this country to the staple food: The “daily bread” was often served as millet porridge. Millet had been on the menu in China for about eight thousand years, but in the middle of the third millennium BC. Established in today’s Kazakhstan and in the Kashmir Valley. Obviously, cereals from the Far East did not come to Europe until the second millennium and then spread to today’s Schleswig-Holstein in just a few centuries. This is what a group of European archaeologists found out.

Charred millet grains from more than seventy prehistoric sites were chronologically classified using the radiocarbon method. Like the researchers working with Dragana Filipović from the University of Kiel in den „Scientific Reports“ report, the oldest comes from the middle of the sixteenth century BC. A find from southwestern Ukraine dated to BC.


Millet is a rather undemanding grain.
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Image: Wiebke Kirleis, UFG Kiel

Millet was probably in the Po Valley since the middle of the fifteenth century BC. BC as well as in the Pannonian Plain. By the middle of the fourteenth century, millet cultivation had spread to Greece and large parts of Central Europe. Middle of the twelfth century BC Finally, millet was also consumed in the far north of Germany and Poland.

Warmth-loving, but otherwise undemanding

Apparently, Europe‘s Bronze Age farmers had few reservations about the new grain. Millet has several advantages over the grain that has been known since the Neolithic Age and which came to Europe from the Middle East: Unlike wheat and barley, it also thrives on poor soil. Loves warmth, but otherwise quite undemanding, it can be harvested in less than three months. In addition, although millet produces a lot of biomass in a short period of time, it needs little water.

Where winter cereals were traditionally grown, the fast-growing millet offered opportunities for a second harvest, which promised additional supplies for future times of need or compensated for an impending crop failure. Compared to straw from wheat and barley, millet straw is also better as fodder for cattle. Millet grains are just as nutritious as wheat, but their protein is of higher quality because it is rich in certain essential amino acids.

Lumps of antique charred millet gruel from Ukraine


Lumps of antique charred millet gruel from Ukraine
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Image: Agnes Heitmann / Wiebke Kirleis, UFG Kiel

As a result, millet can be an important component of a balanced diet, especially for vegans. In the absence of gluten, it is not suitable for baking bread. For people who suffer from celiac disease and therefore have to eliminate foods containing gluten from their diet, this is an advantage.

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