Little Barley

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Little barley (Hordeum pusillum Nutt.)

Little barley is an annual grass which produces a starchy grain or seed, much smaller than that of domesticated Old World barley. It often grows wild on waste ground, along roadsides, and in overgrazed pastures in dry, alkaline soil. Today it occurs primarily in northwestern Iowa.

Archaeologically, little barley is commonly found at sites together with seeds of other known cultivated plants including goosefoot, maygrass, and knotweed. Cultivation is inferred not from morphological changes to the seed, but from its abundance and association with these other cultigens at sites across the Midwest and South.

Evidence for the earliest known cultivated little barley in eastern North America comes the Gast Spring site (13LA152) in Louisa County, Iowa. Little barley seeds were found with domesticated goosefoot seeds and the rind of domesticated squash or gourd in Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland features dating 2,800 to 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists recovered a single specimen of possibly cultivated little barley at the Late Archaic Edgewater Park site (13JH1132) in Johnson County dated 700 years earlier than Gast Spring. Charred seeds from two Early Woodland contexts at 13MC15 in Muscatine County were radiocarbon-dated to 2,500 years ago. Little barely is increasingly abundant in Iowa sites from Middle Woodland times throughout the Late Prehistoric. Storage pits at Wall Ridge, 13ML176, a Late Prehistoric Glenwood site in Mills County, Iowa, produced the first reported instance of little barley on the Central or Northern Plains.

Although it is questionable whether little barley was ever actually domesticated, its cultivation is important in understanding pre-maize agriculture. Because the grains are so small, large plots were needed for an adequate harvest. Thus its presence signals the beginning of more intensive cropping practices among prehistoric people.

Little barley, like maygrass, is a winter annual with seeds ripening in late May and June— offering prehistoric peoples a springtime resource. To process seeds for food, the bract— a papery covering around the grain which has a sharp, hair-like attachment (awn)— was separated from the grain. Like chenopodium, it is assumed that early peoples ate the nutritious starchy seeds of little barley—possibly parched, roasted, and boiled.

Major References

Asch, David L. and William Green 1992
Dunne, Michael T. 1997
Dunne, Michael T. and William Green 1998
Green, William 1990
Green, William and Shelly Gradwell 1995
Schroeder, Marjorie 1995
Whittaker et al. 2007
Zalucha, L. Anthony 1999

Map of Iowa with dark red dots that indicate prehistoric sites known to have cultivated little barley

Iowa Sites
Site Number Major Reference Family Genus and Species Iowa Culture
13AM404 Powell, 2005 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum LMW/LW/O
13CK15 Jones, 1993 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum MC
13DA110 Dunne, 1995 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum GO
13DM140 Hollinger, 1999 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum O
13LA1 Hollinger, 1999; Hollinger, 2005 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum O
13LA12 Hodgson, 1992; Dunne, 2002 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum MW/ELW
13LA38 Asch and Green, 1992 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum MW/ELW
13LA152 Dunne, 1997 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum LA
13LE110 Hollinger, 2005; Zalucha, 1999 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum MLW/O
13LE117B Zalucha, 1999 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum ELW
13LE327 Zalucha, 1999 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum W/O
13MA208 Asch and Green, 1992 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum O
13MA209 Asch and Green, 1992 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum O
13MC15 Schroeder, 1995 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum EW
13ML175 Adair, 2010 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum G
13ML176 Asch and Green, 1992 GRAMINEAE or POACEAE Hordeum pusillum G

 

Key
LA Late Archaic
EW Early Woodland
MW Middle Woodland
LMW Late Middle Woodland
ELW Early Late Woodland
LW Late Woodland
GO Great Oasis
MC Mill Creek
G Glenwood
O Oneota

Two photographs of barley plants

Two photographs of barley plants

 

Image Credit:​
Wendy and Michael Scullin
Melanie Riley and Mary Kathryn Rocheford, OSA (map)