Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology

pp 1021-1024

Brown Top Millet: Origins and Development

  • Eleanor Kingwell-BanhamAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London Email author 
  • , Dorian Q. FullerAffiliated withInstitute of Archaeology, University College London

Basic Species Information

Brown top millet, which goes by the scientific name Brachiaria ramosa (L.) Stapf. or Urochloa ramosa (L.) R.D. Webster, is known locally as pedda-sama and korne, and has a limited cultivation largely confined to southern India. Domestic and wild/weedy forms of brown top millet are found in agricultural systems, often within the same field. It is used as both a human food crop and fodder. Outside of India, it is grown in some parts of the USA as a fodder crop, largely to provide food for game birds, and was introduced from India around 1915. Although its distribution is highly relict today, restricted to parts remote parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu states in southern India (Kimata et al. 2000), it appears to have been a major staple crop in the late prehistory of the wider region of the Deccan (Fuller et al. 2004).

In several parts of India, brown top millet is known by local names which translate to “illegal wife of little millet [Panicum sumatrense],” reflecting its tendency to grow within fields of little millet as a mimic weed (Sakamoto 1987). Brown top millet can grow with either a compact or open panicle and can have either shattering or indehiscent spikelets. The domestic form, however, tends to act like other domestic cereals and is both compact and partially indehiscent (Kimata et al. 2000). Where brown top millet occurs as a weed of other millet fields, it is usually treated as an insurance crop.

Major Domestication Traits

Brown top millet is particularly tolerant of drought and is well adapted to semiarid areas. It grows well at altitudes of 2,000–2,500 m, with 75–150 cm annual rainfall (Roecklein & Leung 1987). Cultivation is more common in the dry areas of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh at lower elevations, South India, than in other parts of the world. Brown top millet grows and matures over around 90 days, a shorter time than several other millets including pearl millet (Pannisetum glaucum). It is usually grown as a single crop and not incorporated into mixed field systems. Harvesting in the early morning while the dew is still on the crop reduces the amount of grain lost through panicle shattering. Shattering (dehiscence) is reduced compared to the wild forms, but it is still partially shattering. The crop tends to be cut at the base, then winnowed, dehusked, and polished. Because it is semi-shattering, its grains can become dislodged just by being dried which reduces the need to thresh, although it requires dehusking like most other millets. Straw and chaff is often used as animal fodder; however, the grain is reserved for human consumption and is said to be tastier than rice. Brown top millet tends to be ground into flour and used to make flat breads (roti, dosa) or polished and boiled to make gruel (anna, kheer). Some of these foods are used in religious rituals, which may partly account for its persistence in cultivation (Kimata et al. 2000).

The identification of brown top millet grain and spikelets can be difficult due to its similarity to Setaria italica (Fig. 1). Although the panicle is distinct from Setaria by being looser and non-bristly, the grains themselves are very similar. Grains are ovate to round and have a long embryo, roughly two thirds to three fourths of the length of the grain. They tend to be smaller than Setaria italica and squatter in cross section. The surface of well-preserved grains can be used for identification as these have a distinctive undulating pattern, although this again has similarities to S. italica (Fuller et al. 2004). The husk has a fine beaded and rugose pattern, which again has some resemblance to that of Setaria spp., but it is somewhat coarser than S. italica and finer than S. verticillata.
Brown Top Millet: Origins and Development, Fig. 1

Drawing of Brachiatia ramosa panicles, spikelet, hulled and de-hulled grains, showing the rugose husk patterns of the lemma and palea. SEM images of lemma and palea patterns inset

Timing and Tracking Domestication

The domestication of brown top millet probably occurred in South India, in the Deccan, and it spread during prehistory outward to other parts of India (Fig. 2). Charred grains identified as “Brachiaria ramosa type” have been recovered from most Neolithic South Indian sites where systematic archaeobotanical work has occurred. On these sites brown top millet has a high ubiquity and relative frequency. Dating the time of domestication is complicated by the fact that little archaeobotanic work has been carried out on early Neolithic or preceramic period (Mesolithic sites); however, the evidence suggests that this crop, along with other South Indian crops (i.e., Macrotyloma uniflorum, Vigna radiata and Setaria verticillata), developed from indigenous wild populations around the beginning of the third millennium BCE (Fuller 2006). During this period, local millets and legumes were incorporated into an agro-pastoral system, part of the ash-mound culture of the southern Neolithic of India, which employed both mobile cattle pastoralism and small-scale crop cultivation. Brown top millet spread out from the Deccan to Tamil Nadu in the south (Cooke et al. 2005) and Gujarat in the north by the end of the second millennium BCE. Small quantities of the grain have also been found from Chalcolithic (late second–early first millennium BCE) sites in Odisha (Orissa) in the east and some sites in the Ganges plains (Harvey 2006), however, the number of grains recovered does not suggest cultivation and may represent wild plants. Over time, brown top millet has seen reduced use, although it was still present at the site of Paithan in Maharashtra up to the seventh century CE. Its gradual reduction in use can be attributed to displacement by alternative, more productive millets, including the African millets (Sorghum bicolor, Eleusine coracana), as well as foxtail millet (Setaria italica) that probably contributed to this. Today brown top millet is a relict cultivar but one with some important ritual uses.
Brown Top Millet: Origins and Development, Fig. 2

Distribution map of archaeological finds of Brachiaria ramosa in relation to the Southern Indian Neolithic and modern cultivation of this crop


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