Earliest Direct Evidence for Broomcorn Millet and Wheat in the Central Eurasian Steppe Region

By Frachetti, Michael D.; Spengler, Robert N. et al. | Antiquity, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Earliest Direct Evidence for Broomcorn Millet and Wheat in the Central Eurasian Steppe Region


Frachetti, Michael D., Spengler, Robert N., Fritz, Gayle J., Mar'yashev, Alexei N., Antiquity


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Introduction

From the earliest archaeological preoccupation with the 'agricultural revolution', a major arena of scientific inquiry has revolved around the regional identities of people who spread domesticates and agricultural practices, those who acquired them, and the dynamics of interaction along the frontiers of different forms of food production. At its most essential, this line of study has been defined by two key requisites: finding direct evidence for domesticated plants and animals; and securely dating that evidence in comparison with neighbouring datasets. This has often led to arguments about the direct and indirect pathways toward food production that connect or differentiate the economic strategies of societies around the world. In some cases, however, vast gaps in evidence have left us with few data to work with, so determinations about the direction of diffusion, chronology, or even independent domestication of crops (and animals) in particular regions, cannot be made with confidence. For example, throughout the history of archaeological study in the central Eurasian steppe zone, a lack of reliable evidence for use of domesticated grains before the first millennium BC has constrained our understanding of the economies and realms of interaction that characterise Eurasian steppe communities and their neighbours before and during the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1000 BC).

Within the vast territory of the central Eurasian steppe (Figure 1), direct archaeological evidence of agricultural production, consumption, and regional diffusion of domesticated grains during the Neolithic and Bronze Age is concentrated only in the westernmost regions--essentially the territories north of the Black Sea and further west to central Europe. Yet for decades, archaeologists have argued for the use of domesticated grains in the subsistence economies of pastoralists living throughout the wider steppe region in the late third and second millennia BC (Kuz'mina 2007: 141). This argument has remained largely speculative due to the vast lacuna in directly dated evidence for crops before the first millennium BC outside the westernmost territories of the Eurasian steppe (Lebedeva 2005). To date, a chronological gap of more than 7000 years exists between the first regional domestications of wheat (Triticum spp.) in south-west Asia, broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceurn) in China, and the earliest directly dated evidence of those grains in central Eurasian archaeological contexts. Both geographically and chronologically, the near void in archaeobotanical evidence across the steppe zone, from the Gansu (Hexi) Corridor to the Caucasus, has clouded archaeological models of diffusion of domesticated crops over an enormous territory of the world. However, recent archaeological research suggests that Eurasian mobile pastoralists were key agents for the transmission of numerous technologies and products across the steppe zone, promoting networks of interaction between economies and societies from eastern Asia to south-west Asia and Europe in the third and second millennia BC (Anthony 2007; Frachetti 2008).

The earliest cultivation and use of domesticated cereals in Neolithic economies are well documented from at least 8000 BC in south-west Asia (Willcox 2005; Weiss et al. 2006). By the sixth millennium BC, domestic varieties of wheat and barley (Hardeum vulgare) (among other crops) comprise staple foods for Neolithic agriculturalists from south-west Asia to Europe and south Asia (Colledge et al. 2004; Bellwood 2005). Recent studies in eastern Asia at the site of Cishan in north-eastern China document the cultivation of broomcorn millet as early as 8000 cal BC between the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain (Crawford 2009; Lu et al. 2009). Evidence for millets--broomcorn and foxtail (Setaria italica)--is more abundant in later Neolithic sites throughout the Yellow River valley and in more upland regions (i. …

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