The changing role of millet in Late Bronze Age central Germany

February 27, 2024

New interdisciplinary research reveals a shift towards reliance on millet, a drought resistant crop, during the beginning of the Late Bronze Age

In a new study recently published in Scientific Reports, researchers used stable isotope analysis as part of an interdisciplinary approach to unravel the dietary habits of Late Bronze Age (ca. 1300 to 800 BCE) inhabitants in central Germany. Investigating the archaeological sites of Esperstedt and Kuckenburg in Saxony-Anhalt, where inhumation burials offer a unique glimpse into subsistence practices, the study sheds light on the complex interplay of cultural, economic, and environmental factors during a period of many societal transformations.

This study employs stable isotope analysis, radiocarbon dating, archaeobotanical analysis, and archaeology to trace shifts in agricultural practices and culinary traditions at a time in which many societal changes were taking place. Notably, the research reveals that Bronze Age residents of the area transitioned from exclusively cultivating and consuming plants like wheat and barley to an agricultural repertoire that included broomcorn millet.

The team identified the dietary changes by examining the stable carbon isotope ratios and stable nitrogen isotope ratios found in bone collagen. These stable isotope values can help to reveal the major components of an individual’s diet, including distinct types of plants. C3 plants like wheat and barley show lower stable carbon isotope values than C4 plants like millet, and by comparing the values over time, the researchers were able to estimate shifts in the population's diet.

As the researchers explore the adoption, peak, and decline of millet consumption, questions arise regarding the reasons for the adoption (around 1400 BCE) and disappearance of millet consumption (around 1050 BCE). While factors such as trade networks, population growth, and cultural preferences are considered, a pivotal role emerges for climatic changes in the region. The study suggests that increased aridity, indicated by paleoclimatic data in the wider region, may have influenced the economic focus on millet due to its resilience in periods of lower precipitation and higher yields in unfavorable conditions.

This study not only contributes to understanding the past dynamics of millet adoption and abandonment but also resonates with contemporary challenges. The parallels between ancient responses to climatic threats and current cultivation experiments with millet underscore the relevance of past agricultural practices in addressing present-day concerns. As the United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets, this research serves as a timely and valuable resource for informing present-day actions amid climate change and increasing natural disasters, emphasizing the enduring role of millet as a resilient and adaptive crop.

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