|Little barley (Hordeum pusillum Nutt.) 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.
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