Little Barley


Table of Contents

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 NumberMajor ReferenceFamilyGenus and SpeciesIowa Culture
13AM404Powell, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumLMW/LW/O
13CK15Jones, 1993GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumMC
13DA110Dunne, 1995GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumGO
13DM140Hollinger, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumO
13LA1Hollinger, 1999; Hollinger, 2005GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumO
13LA12Hodgson, 1992; Dunne, 2002GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumMW/ELW
13LA38Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumMW/ELW
13LA152Dunne, 1997GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumLA
13LE110Hollinger, 2005; Zalucha, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumMLW/O
13LE117BZalucha, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumELW
13LE327Zalucha, 1999GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumW/O
13MA208Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumO
13MA209Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumO
13MC15Schroeder, 1995GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumEW
13ML175Adair, 2010GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumG
13ML176Asch and Green, 1992GRAMINEAE or POACEAEHordeum pusillumG


LALate Archaic
EWEarly Woodland
MWMiddle Woodland
LMWLate Middle Woodland
ELWEarly Late Woodland
LWLate Woodland
GOGreat Oasis
MCMill Creek

Two photographs of barley plants

Two photographs of barley plants


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