Broomcorn (Panicum miliaceum)

Broomcorn Millet in a Montana Roadside
Matt Lavin

Broomcorn or broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum), also known as proso millet, panic millet, and wild millet, is today primarily considered a weed suitable for birdseed. But it contains more protein than most other grains, is high in minerals and easily digested, and has a pleasant nutty taste. Millet can be ground up into flour for bread or used as a grain in recipes as a replacement for buckwheat, quinoa or rice.

Broomcorn History

Broomcorn was a seed grain used by hunter-gatherers in China at least as long ago as 10,000 years. It was first domesticated in China, probably in the Yellow River valley, about 8000 BP, and spread outward from there into Asia, Europe, and Africa. Although the ancestral form of the plant has not been identified, a weedy form native to the region called P. m. subspecies ruderale) is still found throughout Eurasia.

Broomcorn domestication is believed to have taken place about 8000 BP. Stable isotope studies of human remains at sites such as Jiahu, Banpo, Xinglongwa, Dadiwan, and Xiaojingshan suggest that while millet agriculture was present ca 8000 BP, it did not become a dominant crop until about a thousand years later, during the Middle Neolithic (Yangshao).

Evidence for Broomcorn

Broomcorn remains which suggests a highly developed millet-based agriculture have been found at several sites associated with Middle Neolithic (7500-5000 BP) cultures including the Peiligang culture in Henan province, the Dadiwan culture of Gansu province and the Xinle culture in Liaoning province. The Cishan site, in particular, had more than 80 storage pits filled with millet husk ashes, totaling an estimated 50 tons of millet.

Stone tools associated with millet agriculture include tongue-shaped stone shovels, chisel-edged sickles and stone grinders. A stone millstone and grinder were recovered from the early Neolithic Nanzhuangtou site dated to 9000 BP.

By 5000 BC, broomcorn millet was flourishing west of the Black Sea, where there are at least 20 published sites with archaeological evidence for the crop, such as the Gomolava site in the Balkans. The earliest evidence in central Eurasia is from the site of Begash in Kazakhstan, where direct-dated millet seeds date to ca 2200 cal BC.

Recent Archaeology Studies of Broomcorn

Recent studies comparing the differences of grains a broomcorn millet from archaeological sites often vary a great deal, making them difficult to identify in some contexts. Motuzaite-Matuzeviciute and colleagues reported in 2012 that millet seeds are smaller in response to environmental factors, but relative size also can reflect the immaturity of the grain. depending on charring temperature, immature grains can be preserved, and such size variation should not rule out identification as broomcorn.

Broomcorn millet seeds were recently found at the central Eurasian site of Begash, Kazakhstan, and Spengler et al. (2014) argue that this represents evidence for the transmission of broomcorn outside of China and into the broader world. See also Lightfoot, Liu, and Jones for an interesting article on the isotopic evidence for millet across Eurasia.

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