A brief history of the mighty millet

This is the second article in a three-part series produced in partnership with the Crop Trust exploring how seed banks are protecting the world’s food future. Read the rest of the series to learn how seed banks work and the unique role of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Millet isn’t one plant. It refers to several – often very distantly related – species of cereal grasses that have been cultivated for their small edible seeds for thousands of years.

Millets were some of the first grains ever domesticated by humans and have continued to play a vital role across Asia, Africa and Europe ever since.

It was only relatively recently that this mighty crop fell out of favor. But, thanks to a concerted effort, this versatile grain has made a comeback that any celebrity would be proud of. This year is officially the International Year of Millets, as declared by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

8300–6700 B.C.E.

  • This is the earliest evidence of millet cultivation that we have. Proso and foxtail millets are cultivated in northern China, becoming a staple crop.
  • Chinese myths attribute millet domestication to Shennong, a legendary emperor of China, and Hou Ji, whose name means ’Lord Millet.’
  • At around the same time, pearl millet is likely being domesticated in Africa, although the first evidence of it only dates to 3500 B.C.E.
Hou Ji, aka Lord of Millet

7000 B.C.E.

Rice is first cultivated around China’s Yangtze River and Yellow River – over 1,000 years after millet had adorned people’s tables.

5000 B.C.E.

Little millet begins to be domesticated on the Indian subcontinent.

4000 B.C.E.

Millets and their wild ancestors, such as barnyard grass and panic grass, are first cultivated in Japan.

3500–2000 B.C.E.

  • It’s around this time that we have evidence of the cultivation of millet on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum) is also domesticated in the Indian subcontinent, where it remains a vitally important crop.
  • There is evidence of pearl millet cultivation in Africa, though it’s thought to have started thousands of years earlier.
Pearl Millet. Stefano Padulosi, Bioversity International

2500 B.C.E.

We see the first evidence of the cultivation of pearl millet in Mali, where the wild plant is found. Today, millet still accounts for about 40 percent of the country’s cereal food consumption per capita.

2300 B.C.E.

Pearl millet is first found on the Indian subcontinent, presumably having been brought from Africa. This type of millet is known as ‘bajra’ in India and is most commonly grown in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.

2000 B.C.E.

The oldest noodles ever found, made of two varieties of millet, were discovered in an earthenware bowl dating from this period.

1200–800 B.C.E.

  • Various millets are mentioned in some of the Yajurveda texts, showing the cultivation of foxtail millet, barnyard millet and black finger millet in India.
  • Yajurveda is one of the scriptures of Hinduism and is estimated to have been written during this time.
Yajurveda texts. Wikimedia

800 B.C.E. – 1900 C.E.

For the next 2800-ish years, millet enjoyed popularity around the globe. Numerous types have been cultivated and eaten for centuries, particularly in arid and semiarid regions. It appears in cuisines and cultures around the world, including:

Millet flatbread (bajra roti) from India 

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Millet porridge in Russia, Germany and China

Sweet puffed millet snacks called awaokoshi in Japan

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An alcoholic drink called tongba in Nepal, Bhutan and the Indian regions of Sikkim and Darjeeling.

A spicy millet porridge, koko, in Nigeria and Ghana.

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The sweet snack bánh đa kê in Vietnam.

And, of course, as a staple cereal in many countries worldwide.

During this period, millet is also cultivated as a grazing crop, planted to feed animals such as cattle and sheep.

While millet once stood shoulder to shoulder with corn and rice, it fell out of favor in many countries in the 20th century. Biodiversity Heritage Library


  • Millets enter a period of decline, and their share of crop production drops from 40 percent to 20 percent.
  • Countries such as India, which experience massive economic growth, diversify their cereal crop production, resulting in a move away from millet.


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declares 2023 the International Year of Millets following a request by the Indian government.

Text by Eden Flaherty
Illustrations by Inês Mateus
Produced by Eden Flaherty