Finger Millet: Origins and Development

Claire SmithEncyclopedia of Global Archaeology10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2_2314
© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Finger Millet: Origins and Development

Dorian Q. Fuller 
Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London, UK
Dorian Q. Fuller
Without Abstract

Basic Species Information

Finger millet is the common English name of the crop Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn., a domesticated cereal of African origin which spreads in prehistory to Asia, also sometimes referred to as korakan or ragi (a widespread local name in India) or dagusa (in Ethiopia). Its English common name comes from the growth form of its seed heads (panicles) which take the form of several fingers (Fig. 1). This cereal is widely cultivated in eastern and central Africa, India, and Sri Lanka and extends eastwards through the Himalayas to southern China, the hills of Southeast Asia and into the hills of Taiwan, and parts of Indonesia and Guam. In Asia it is frequently a cereal in shifting cultivation systems, although it is also produced in permanent field systems on the plains of India. It is also cultivated to a limited extent in modern Yemen and Oman. Although the wild progenitor species (Eleusine africana Kennedy-O’Byrne) is well established, where and how many times within the African native range of this species it was cultivated initially remains unclear (Hilu & De Wet 1976). Ecologically it is regarded as coming from an upland environment, and as a crop it is most commonly grown in hill zones, above 900 m. Nevertheless, it can be grown in the lowlands, to a limited extent in Africa and to a larger extent in India. In Asia upland races, which are especially widespread in the Himalayas from India to Nepal and southern China, appear to be a secondary adaptation. One limited genetic study suggested that the hills of western Tanzania might be the region of origin (Hilu 1995), while many botanists have pointed to the Ethiopia highlands as a point of origin (e.g., De Wet 2000). There remains no clear evidence from botany or archaeology on where within the range of the wild progenitor it was first brought into cultivation or whether this occurred more than once (Fig. 2).
Finger Millet: Origins and Development, Fig. 1
Photograph of finger millet panicle, in cultivation in the Western Ghats, Maharashtra, and India

Major Domestication Traits

Finger millet is somewhat less hardy than other millets, preferring richer and wetter soils, but it has exceptional storage advantages. Finger millet grains are rarely attacked by pests or spoil in storage, and shelf life of up to a decade is commonly reported. Although it may survive with 500 mm of rainfall, it is generally grown on 800–1,000 mm. It is often the first crop in rotations of shifting cultivation or the second crop after rice, as it does not do as well on impoverished soils as other millets. While it can be made into porridges and flat breads, finger millet beers are traditional both in parts of Africa and Asia.
Finger Millet: Origins and Development, Fig. 2
Map of wild progenitor (after Hilu & De Wet 1976) and approximate limits of cultivation in Africa (after Murdock 1960) together with distribution of archaeological reports in Africa (based on the database of Giblin & Fuller 2011)
Finger Millet: Origins and Development, Fig. 3
Scanning electron micrograph of finger millet grain, dorsal view
Studies of the crop processing of finger millet have been carried out in both Africa and India and indicate that it is a free-threshing grain, with most grains freely separated from chaff after one stage of threshing and winnowing. This may bias against preservation of this species by comparison to cereals, such as rice and most small millets, that require intensive dehusking (Reddy 1997; Young 1999).
Recognition of grains of finger millet should be straightforward if preservation is good (Fig. 3). It has a distinctive globose but angular shape, a short embryo, and a hilum placed at the edge of the embryo on a separate edge rather than on the ventral grain surface. The surface of the grain is distinctly sculptured with small warts. Nevertheless, there have been recurrent misattributions of other small millets to “finger millet” in older archaeological studies in India due to confusion of the husk of Setaria/Brachiaria with grain surface of Eleusine and an anachronistic assumption that finger millet is the most widespread small-grained millet in India (see Fuller 2003). Therefore, within South Asian archaeobotany, the antiquity and distribution of this cereal remains controversial.

Timing and Tracking Domestication

Archaeobotanical evidence does not yet shed much light on where or when finger millet was brought into cultivation (Giblin & Fuller 2011). The earliest finds in Africa are only just over 2,000 BP from Nigeria and northern Ethiopia. Most evidence in Ethiopia is post-Axumite, while further south in Eastern Africa, it is widespread from Middle Iron Age times after c. CE 600 (Giblin & Fuller 2011). As a result of concerns over identification, the date at which finger millet arrived in India from Africa remains contentious, but it is certainly present by the end of the second millennium BCE (Fuller 2011). Some claims would put it in India as early as c. 2,500 BCE (Weber 1991). On most Indian sites where it has so far been found, both prehistoric and early historic levels occur, raising the possibility of later intrusive grains. It also appears to be a fairly minor component by comparisons to other millets on most sites, suggesting that its rise to importance only took place in the past 1,500 years or so. There is no archaeological evidence yet that sheds light on its spread through the Himalayas or eastwards to south China and Southeast Asia.
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Young, R. 1999. Finger millet processing in East Africa. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 8: 31-4.
Weber, S.A. 1991. Plants and Harappan subsistence: an example of stability and change from Rojdi. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH.
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