Millet cultivation in Central Asia: A response to Miller et al.

Elizabeth Baker Brite, Fiona Jane Kidd, Alison Betts, Michelle Negus Cleary

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In a recent special issue of The Holocene, Miller et al. review the evidence for the spread of millet (Panicum miliaceum and Setaria italica) across Eurasia. Among their arguments, they contend that millet cultivation came to Eurasian regions with hot, dry summers when irrigation was introduced, as part of a region-wide shift toward agricultural intensification in the first millennium BC. This hypothesis seems to align with the pattern of agricultural change observed in the Khorezm oasis, a Central Asian polity of the first millennium BC and first millennium AD. While we wholeheartedly accept this hypothesis for its explanatory value regarding trends across Eurasia, in this paper we nevertheless suggest that the introduction of millet to Central Asia needs further explication. Specifically, we seek to address the underlying assumption that this introduction was predicated upon centrally organized, state-level land development, increased sedentism, and the rise of Mesopotamian-style social complexity. We describe how millet cultivation in Khorezm was preceded by multi-resource strategies that included the cultivation of summer crops, and emphasize that this earlier history mattered significantly to the evolution of Khorezmian society and agriculture in the first millennium BC. In contrast to the imperial systems of West Asia, in Khorezm the introduction of complex irrigation works supported the expansion and greater stratification of pre-existing agropastoral lifeways, and helped to buttress the rise of nomadic elites within an agrarian zone. We believe the example of Khorezm is important because it helps to explain the emergence of integrated mobile-sedentist societies in the first millennium AD in Central Asia as a result of agricultural change. It also provides cultural and historical context to the spread of millet cultivation in the first millennium BC, suggesting that this phenomenon had significantly different implications for societies across Eurasia.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1415-1422
Number of pages8
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017


  • Eurasia
  • Uzbekistan
  • agriculture
  • archaeobotany
  • intensification
  • irrigation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Archaeology
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Palaeontology


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