How the Millets Arose
It is not illogical to think that at least some of the wild grasses in this chapter might be turned into tractable crops for farm fields and household gardens. It has been done in the past . . . by our Stone Age forebears, no less.
Between 12,000 and 6000 B.C., most of the Sahara appears to have been perfectly hospitable to humans. What is today the world's most fearsome desert then enjoyed a mild climate, winter rainfall, and an extensive grass cover. Acacia and tamarisk trees lined the many water courses. Mountainsides were verdant woodlands of myrtle, oak, hackberry, and olive, with juniper and pines at the upper altitudes.*
By 10,000 B.C. people inhabited the area. A scattering of Neolithic (New Stone Age) sites across the central Sahara provide evidence that they were using sickles and grinding equipment, which suggests that they were using the grasses. By 6000 B.C. the central Sahara people were definitely collecting wild grain as well as apparently hunting wildlife and herding livestock. The vast grasslands provided game as well as limitless grazing for cattle, sheep, and goats. Shallow lakes—occupying wide, flat pans—enlarged during the rains and provided plentiful food from fish, hippopotamus, and aquatic plants, including African rice.
But then, after about 4000 B.C., the region began drying out. The desert as we know it today had begun to form. Few archeological sites from this period are found, and the people apparently had been forced to leave.
But before they left, they had time to domesticate some of the grasses around them during the thousands of years the rather sedentary, herding-fishing-hunting people occupied the Sahara. Several cereals seem to have arisen there. African rice, fonio, pearl millet, sorghum, and perhaps finger millet got their start this way.
Those ancients did a miraculous job, considering they had no knowledge of genetics, microorganisms, chemistry, nutrition, or the myriad other sciences we now consider vital for domesticating and developing crops. Nor did they have ready access to the variety of germplasm that any scientist today would demand. If they could do it, surely we can.