By Abby Dockter
Modern fields of winter wheat surround the cluster of ancient homes on a ridge above McElmo Creek where prehistorically, using stone against stone, people pulverized seeds and herbs for a traditional cuisine that spanned the wealth of food resources available in the high desert. Meals included wild seeds and nuts, venison and insects, cactus fruits and the underground parts of native bulbs. In the fires of the Switchback Site, seeds and plant parts escaped the cooking pot, carbonized in the flames, and remain some of the best evidence for what the inhabitants were eating in the 8th Century AD. Out of the cooking pot and into the fire fell twoa grains of a native grass: Little Barley, Hordeum pusillum.
You Chances are that you have probably never eaten Little Barley, which had its moment as a crop in the ancient world. Indigenous people rarely used Little Barley only rarely in the last four hundred years, but it appears as a domesticated grain in prehistoric archaeological sites across southern and central Arizona, California, and the Midwest. In the Southwest, Little Barley was relished as food from the Early Agricultural (1200 BC to 500 AD in southeastern Arizona) to Classic Hohokam (1150—1450 AD) time periods, then fell out of popularity, all before the arrival of Old World crops such as wheat and millet. Now this native edible grass grain has been all but forgotten: In 2017, Colorado harvested 68,000 acres of Old World barley, a species of Hordeum from the Mediterranean that is one of the state’s top ten crop plants.
Modern people grow and consume only a tiny percentage of edible plants in the world, a fact that has troubled archaeologist Paul Minnis for some time. “Three thousand species of plants were domesticated throughout the world, and today we’re dependent on twelve,” said Minnis, who has been analyzing the plant remains from archaeological sites for decades. “It’s like putting all your eggs in twelve baskets.” Those baskets represent the most influential crops in the world, which are planted and harvested over the greatest areas: wheat, corn, rice, soybeans, sorghum, rapeseed, cotton, millet, beans, sugarcane, and barley.
A few of these plants would be somewhat familiar to the Ancestral Puebloans, and remains of ancient corn and beans appeared in the same hearth that revealed the Little Barley grains. But this hearth also held evidence of sunflower, ground cherry, tansy mustard, and amaranth. In contrast to twelve major crops, ancient people on the Colorado Plateau ate an astounding variety of plants that have never appeared on any list compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. By managing wild plants, Ancestral Puebloans developed varieties suitable to their environment, their tastes, and the system of dryland agriculture they practiced. “People were observant,” said Karen Adams, who pulled together much of the evidence for Little Barley’s domestication by Hohokam people in Arizona. “When they found a plant with desirable traits, they took note.”
Before researcher Anna F. Graham encountered the two Little Barley grains from the Switchback Site, far from its well-known context in Hohokam cooking, this grain had never been recovered from a site on the Colorado Plateau. “I think [we] went from surprised disbelief to amazement,” said Graham, who was analyzing plant remains as part of an internship with Adams at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. “At first I think [Adams] thought I was pulling her leg.”
According to the evidence Graham, Adams, and others collected (published in 2017 as an academic article in Kiva), these tiny burned grass grains in Colorado suggest that Little Barley was domesticated multiple times in different parts of the Southwest. “We want to have this nice, neat little map that says corn is domesticated here, barley is domesticated there,” said Graham. “But the reality is that [domestication was] happening a lot more often and in a lot more places.” Even Old World barley—the kind used in beer, whiskey, and animal feed—was domesticated at least twice, once in the Fertile Crescent and independently on the Tibetan Plateau.
The time might be ripe to imitate ancient people’s resource flexibility, and to imagine a more diverse agriculture in the modern Southwest. Little Barley, for example, has all the resilience of its hundred thousand years adapting to this continent. Re-domesticating native Little Barley and growing it for food might seem far-fetched, but Minnis is confident that ancient crops are one of the best places to look for new possibilities. In a changing climate, new (yet ancient), adaptable, and drought-resistant crops could be welcome additions to the palate. Native American food traditions have already embraced the richness wealth and variety of North American plant life, and those traditions are enjoying a growing culinary influence and appreciation through eminent Native food chefs such as Karlos Baca, Lois Ellen Frank, and Sean Sherman. Little Barley grains still hold the carbohydrates, protein, fiber, and fat that made them valuable in the 8th Century.
Though increasingly edged out by invasive species of Hordeum, Little Barley still grows widely across North America. True to its name, it grows only a few inches tall. In the early spring, seed heads crown the tiny stalks and skinny green blades with grains, edible as they have ever been. Their presence in old cooking fires is a reminder of the richness this landscape offers in small packages.