History of Millet - Where does millet come from?
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History of Millet

A field of millet

May 2016 - Millet is a kind of grain that grows wild in Africa and all across Asia. It grows about fifteen feet tall, like corn on the cob (it looks kind of like corn when it is growing, too). Millet grows fast, and doesn't need very much rain, so it's a good crop for dry or cold climates. It will grow in places where wheat and barley will not grow. Also, millet is easy to store. You can keep it up to five years. So it's good for places that have long winters or often have droughts.

There are two main different kinds of millet, and people may have begun farming the two kinds independently. Broomyard millet grew wild in China, and hunters and gatherers in early China probably ate millet. People have been farming broomyard millet in Northern China since about 4500 BC. Northern China was dry and cold, so it was a good place to grow millet. The sign for millet is common in Chinese writing, where the signs for "millet" and "mouth" put together mean "good", and the signs for "millet" and "man" together mean "harvest" or "year".


The other important kind of millet is pearl millet. It grows wild in the Sudan (south of the Sahara Desert) in Africa. By 4000 BC, people in the Sudan were farming pearl millet, and from there pearl millet spread to East Africa and then to Egypt by around 3000 BC. The Egyptians made a flat bread like pita bread out of millet, and they made their bread in the same room where they brewed beer. The brewing process grew a lot of wild yeasts, and the yeasts got into the millet and made the earliest raised millet bread. When the Egyptians noticed this, they began mixing beer with their flour instead of water, to make light fluffy bread like we eat today. Some people still make beer bread today. Around the same time, lake-dwelling Europeans were also using millet.

From East Africa millet also spread to India, where people were farming it by about 2500 BC. The Harappans used millet to make roti, a kind of flatbread like pita bread. About the same time, Sumerians in West Asia were also growing millet.

roti millet bread
Roti bread

The Bible tells us that millet was growing in Israel around 600 BC. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the 400s BC, described millet growing very tall in the Persian Empire, but he also knew that people farmed millet in Greece.  Millet in Europe about this time was usually eaten boiled in water or milk like oatmeal or polenta. In Northern Italy and Rome, this millet porridge was called puls, and it was the most common food of really poor people in the time of the Roman Republic.
About the same time, pearl millet spread from Eastern Africa south down the coast and became more and more common in southern Africa as well.

By the Han Dynasty, about 200 BC, a lot of people in China were making wine out of millet. In Africa, people made beer out of it.

Around 1000 AD, North African people began to make their millet into couscous instead of porridge, maybe imitating rice. But medieval Europeans continued to rely on millet porridge for an important part of their food (they called it groats). And millet porridge continued to be very important in northern China as well. Marco Polo, a man from Venice who may have visited China during the reign of Kublai Khan, in the 1200s AD, said that most Chinese people ate millet cooked in milk into porridge.

Learn by doing: try making millet porridge with milk
More about millet in China

Bibliography and further reading about millet:

Food, by Fiona MacDonald and others (2001). Easy facts about food from all over the world. A little preachy.

Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, by Don and Patricia Brothwell (1998). Pretty specialized, but the book tells you where foods came from, and how they got to other places, and what people ate in antiquity. Not just Europe, either!

Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present, by Jean Louis Flandrin, Massimo Montanari, Albert Sonnenfeld. (1996). Hard going because it is translated from French, but Flandrin was one of the world's great food historians.

More about African food
More about Chinese food
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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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