The past and future role of minor cereals

  • Over the last ten millennia, around 40 species of domesticated grass (cereals) have formed a major component of agricultural food chains around the world. Today, three cereals (wheat, rice and maize) account for over half the calorific input of the human food chain. However, the majority of cereals are in decline, some coming close to extinction.

    The prehistoric record demonstrates this was not always the case. By the Bronze Age, African millets had been expanding into South Asia, Asian millets westwards into Europe, both regions within which such major crops as wheat and barley were well established.

    In this paper, I shall talk about some of the archaeobotanical and genetic studies we have been conducting with the ERC research project Food Globalisation in Prehistory and consider what has been learnt about the crops themselves.

    The paper will end with a reflection on some of the world’s surviving minor cereals today, and what contribution they may hold in challenges for the future.