Original Article

Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 22, Issue 2, pp 141-152

First online:

The archaeobotanical significance of immature millet grains: an experimental case study of Chinese millet crop processing

  • Jixiang SongAffiliated withSchool of History and Culture (Tourism), Sichuan University
  • , Zhijun ZhaoAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
  • , Dorian Q. FullerAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London Email author 

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We present evidence from ethnography and experimental processing of foxtail millet (Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv.) in China that spikelets containing incompletely filled (or immature) grains constitute a significant portion of typical millet harvests and are removed along with other by-products after threshing and winnowing. This study provides a baseline for the identification of immature foxtail grains in archaeobotanical assemblages. Immature millet grains are a frequent component of archaeobotanical assemblages in Neolithic and Bronze Age China, and criteria for their recognition are presented based on our modern experimental result and illustrated with archaeobotanical examples from Shandong and Henan. It is seed morphology rather than size that plays a determinative role in the identification of foxtail millet. It is suggested that those grains with a narrow egg-shaped embryo, which is about 5/6 of the whole grain, and having a round shape can be classed as foxtail millet even though they are small, flat and squashed. While different grades of immaturity in millet grains might be defined, the interpretative potential of these appears to be negligible as all immature grains are concentrated in winnowing waste. This study confirms the suggestion that the ratio of immature to mature millet grains can be employed in archaeobotany in considering whether or not early stage crop processing (threshing and winnowing) contributed to the formation of particular archaeological millet assemblages.


Setaria italica Panicum miliaceum China Neolithic Identification criteria Experimental archaeology