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Frankfurt-Groningen Millets Network

The Gradual Vanishing of Millet in West Africa.
About Shifting Valuations, Knowledge and Biodiversity by Hans Peter Hahn.

For West Africa, historical documents from the colonial period indicate a large variety of
cultivated varieties, for both, Sorghum millets and the Pennisetum group. As preliminary
investigations in Togo and Burkina Faso have shown, the farmers in this region nowadays,
about 100 years later, know only a fraction of the older varieties. Nevertheless, most
farmers do cultivate 3-4 varieties for each of the two mentioned genera. The proposed
project has two objectives: (1) to investigate what distinguishes the varieties available today
with respect to the use of harvest, cultivation (season, labour, location of fields, yields), and
subjective appreciation (value as a cash-crop, preparation, taste, nutritional value). (2) to ask
what causes the vanishing of those varieties that do not exist any longer, provided that at
least some farmers remember the former, greater diversity.
Hypotheses about the fundamental change (or loss) concern, firstly, the increasing
availability of other crops, such as corn and rice. This includes the issues of the valuation of
mixed cultivation, since millet is usually associated with 2-3 other crops (e.g. sesame, beans).
Secondly, the change may also have to do with the question of manpower, since maize and
rice are ripening faster than certain types of millet and thus require less effort for weeding.
Furthermore, taste plays a role: are the new competitors perceived as equal or superior?
Finally, as a fifth hypothesis, a change in the agricultural system, as a whole, can be
assumed: if production is increasingly important for the national market, could that be the
cause for the marginalization of certain varieties excluded from commercialization?
Methodologically, my contribution will use classical techniques from economic
anthropology: direct observation, participatory observation, open discussion and interviews
with stakeholders (i.e. farmers) as well as experts, like market professionals. In addition,
estimates of crop quantities and income at the level of peasant households will be relevant.
In order to address the 2nd objective, ethno-historical methods shall be applied. For example,
with a view to discussing the data found in the old documents.

Prof. Dr. Roland HardenbergFoto:

Prof. Dr. Roland Hardenberg

State Rice and Local Millets in the Highlands of Middle India
by Roland Hardenberg, Goethe University Frankfurt
Many highland communities of Middle India (here: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha),
who are officially classified as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, receive subsidized rice
because they fall under the so-called “Below Poverty Line” (BPL). Additionally, the
government provides rice free of cost to school children as part of their midday schemes.
Rice is considered to be the food of “civilized people” and is grown in great amounts in the
coastal areas where rice meals - and not the North Indian bread culture – is the norm. In the
highlands of Middle India, rice cultivation is either practiced on irrigated fields in the valleys,
on terraced fields in the steep areas or directly in the rivers beds (see Peter Berger).
Some hill communities have been practicing rice cultivation since long, while others have
adopted it more recently. The latter communities are often those, who inhabit the upper
highlands and are experienced in shifting cultivation, especially in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh
and Chhattisgarh. Among these communities, millet cultivation continues to be of major
importance. Often a variety of millets is grown on the steep hill slopes such as little millet, pearl millet, finger millet and sorghum. These millets serve as staple food and are basically consumed in
two different ways: either in cooked but dry form (e.g. little millet) similar to rice or as a
gruel prepared from finger millet. During previous research among the Dongria Kond of Odisha (2001-3) the impact of
subsidized rice on millet cultivation became already visible: rice was accepted as a staple
food, it began to substitute millet on festive occasions and the number of rice fields
increased. Rice became an alternative to millet in a variety of contexts: as offering to gods
and object of worship, as gift to friends and relatives, as food for daily and ceremonial
contexts. This raises the question what wider impacts the choice for rice has:
Can one discern an increasing importance of rice in myths and ritual speech?
Do rituals related to rice replace other crop related forms of worship?
Does this change have an impact on the material culture related to production,
distribution and consumption of food?
Such choices between rice and millets are related to wider processes of valuation. This
pertains not only to the quality of these grains, but also to their forms of production (wet or
shifting cultivation) and their use in shaping and expressing social identities and hierarchies.
There seem to be a range of responses to the advance of rice into the highlands: in some
cases millets are marginalized, in others millets continue to be used in certain contexts (e.g.
death rituals or daily consumption of food) while in some communities the value of millets is
reasserted. In this process, non-governmental organization often play an important role
because they support the cultivation of millets for various reasons: for their high nutritional
value, for the empowerment of local communities or for preserving bio-diversity. NGOs
therefore add to the complexity of the valuation processes involved in the on-going
“contest” between rice and millets.
The main aim of the envisaged project will therefore be to document, analyze and
understand these diverse responses to the introduction of rice cultivation and rice
consumption in the highlands of Middle India.
Who are the main actors in this process and what are their interest and
What kind of value constellations emerge as a result of their interactions?
In how far are social relations within and between communities affected by the
introduction of rice?

Own Literature
Hardenberg, R. (submitted). Perspectivism in Tribal Middle India? Reflections on the
animism of the Dongria Kond (Odisha). To be published in: BRILL Encyclopedia of the
Religions of the Indigenous People of South Asia, ed. by Marine Carine. (10 pages)
Hardenberg, R. (forthcoming). Grains as socio-cosmic resources in Odisha/India and Beyond:
Rice and Millet in Competition. Paideuma: Journal of Cultural Anthropology. (17
Hardenberg, R. 2018. Children of the Earth Goddess: Society, Marriage, and Sacrifice in the
Highlands of Orissa (India). Boston/Berlin: DeGruyter, 684 pages, 23 figures, glossary
& appendix.
Hardenberg, R. 2017. ‘Juniors’, ‘Exploiters’, ‘Brokers’ and ‘Shamans’— a Holistic View on the
Dombo Community in the Highlands of Odisha. In: U. Skoda/B. Pati (eds.), Highland
Odisha. Life and Society beyond the Coastal World. Delhi: Primus Books. 2017: 135-
Hardenberg, R. 2017. Dynamic Correspondences: ResourceCultures. In: A. K. Scholz, M.
Bartelheim, R. Hardenberg and Jörn Staecker (eds.), ResourceCultures. Sociocultural
Dynamics and the Use of Resources – Theories, Methods, Perspectives. SFB
Publications: Tübingen. 2017: 25-34.
Hardenberg, R. (ed.) 2016. Approaching Ritual Economy: Socio-Cosmic Fields in Globalized
Contexts. Tübingen: SFB 1070 Publications.
Hardenberg, R. 2016. Beyond Economy and Religion. Resources and Socio-cosmic Fields in
Odisha, India. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 7: 83-96.
Berger, P.; R. Hardenberg; E. Kattner & M. Prager (eds.) 2010. An Anthropology of Values.
Essays in honour of Georg Pfeffer. New Delhi: Pearson/Longman.
Other Relevant Literature
Devi, Suman, and Nihar Ranjan Mishra. "Watershed Management and Dry Land Agriculture A
Case Study from Western Odisha." The Oriental Anthropologist 13.2 (2013): 351.
Finnis, Elizabeth. "The political ecology of dietary transitions: Changing production and
consumption patterns in the Kolli Hills, India." Agriculture and Human Values 24.3
(2007): 343-354.
Finnis, Elizabeth. "Economic wealth, food wealth, and millet consumption: shifting notions of
food, identity, and development in South India." Food, Culture & Society 11.4 (2008):
Khairwal, I. S., and O. P. Yadav. "Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) improvement in India:
Retrospect and prospects." Indian journal of agricultural science 75.4 (2005): 183-
Kuhnlein, Harriet V., and Olivier Receveur. "Dietary change and traditional food systems of
indigenous peoples." Annual review of nutrition 16.1 (1996): 417-442.
Lenka, Damodar. Agriculture in Orissa. New Delhi, India: Kalyani Publishers, 2001.
Mishra, Smita. "Farming System in Jeypore Tract of Orissa, India Smita Mishra."
Nagarajan, Latha, and Melinda Smale. "Village seed systems and the biological diversity of
millet crops in marginal environments of India." Euphytica 155.1-2 (2007): 167-182.
Sakamoto, Sadao, ed. A preliminary report of the studies on millet cultivation and its agropastoral
culture complex in the Indian subcontinent. Kyoto University, 1987.
Vasavi, A. R. "'Hybrid times, hybrid people': culture and agriculture in South
India." Man (1994): 283-300.

13012012PeterBergerFGG01Foto: Dr. Peter Berger is Associate Professor of Indian Religions and the Anthropology of Religion at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen.
His interest in millets has developed through his long-term ethnographic research in highland Central India.
The plateau of the Eastern Ghats (belonging to the Koraput district of Odisha) is home of a number of indigenous communities that cultivate both wet rice and millets.
The complementarity of these two main staple cereals is deeply rooted in local life-worlds, embedded in the social order and manifest in ritual practices.
Among the publications that discuss these aspects are his monograph “Feeding, Sharing and Devouring: Ritual and Society in Highland Odisha, India” (de Gruyter 2015).
Other relevant publications include: (2003) “Erdmenschen und Flussbräute: Natur, Umwelt und Gesellschaft in Orissa, Indien”, Baessler Archiv 51: 7-24 and (in press, with R. Hardenberg) “Cereal Belongings – a cultural perspective on cereals as resource”, Paideuma: Journal of Cultural Anthropology, 64.
His ongoing interests include the comparative study of agriculture and religion in Central India as well as the investigation of the dynamics of both resilience and change in these fields.

René Cappers is professor of Archaeobotany at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen and the Leiden University. He studied biology at Groningen University and specialized in plant ecology and archaeobotany. His PhD thesis deals with methodological aspects of archaeobotanical research. Postdoctoral projects concerned the study of the modeling of the transition to early farming in the Near East and the Roman trade with Africa south of the Sahara, Arabia and India.

Currently, his interest if focused on the reconstruction of the former food economy with special emphasis on the modeling of crop selection. Recent research deals with the standardization of concepts related to (1) the morphology of plant units that are produced in agriculture and to (2) the processes that are involved in crop processing and food preparation. His study was initially focused on the founder crops of southwest Asia (wheat and barley in particular). Recently, he also started to study crops that have been domesticated in India and Africa south of the Sahara. The millet project perfectly fits into this new challenging enterprise.

Cappers, R.T.J. (2018): Digital atlas of traditional food made from cereals and milk (book and website of University Library Groningen). Groningen Archaeological Studies no. 33. Groningen: Barkhuis & Groningen University Library.

Cappers, R.T.J., R. Neef, R.M. Bekker, F. Fantone & Y. Okur (2016): Digital atlas of traditional agricultural practices and food processing (book and website of University Library Groningen). Groningen Archaeological Studies no. 30. Groningen: Barkhuis & Groningen University Library.


     Eichhorn MilletprojektFoto:

Dr. Barbara Eichhorn is Researcher at the Department of Pre- and Protohistorical Archaeology, Institute of Archaeological Sciences at Goethe University.
She has conducted long term archaeobotanical research on the environmental and land use history of Southwest, West- and Central Africa.
Her main scientific interests are a) anthropogenic impact and climate change during the Late Holocene; b) the development of agriculture in West and Central Africa; c) the changing roles of different crops in both areas in course of the Iron Age; d) the significance of iron metallurgy in the context of agricultural intensification and environmental change.
Her publications comprise articles in high-ranked international journals as well as book chapters (
In the frame of this project, she will focus on the Late Holocene history of millets, particularly pearl millet, in different ecological zones of West and Central Africa in competition with other starchy crops.
She will thus provide the long-term historical perspective as an important base of interpretation for the recent changes investigated by the other involved disciplines.


Susanne Epple bild









Susanne Epple is a researcher at the Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt/Main currently engaged in a DFG project on legal pluralism in Ethiopia.
Since 1994 she has done extensive fieldwork in Bashada, southern Ethiopia, on issues related to gender and age, social discourse and identity, and has gained MA and PhD degrees in Social Anthropology from Mainz University.
From 2007 to 2015 she taught Social Anthropology at Addis Abba University, and supervised and examined numerous MA and PhD theses based on research in different parts of the country.
Between 2012 and 2015 she also worked on marginalized groups for a project located at Hamburg University.
Her publications include numerous articles, a special issue and three books on Ethiopia, including two recently edited volumes: Creating and Crossing Boundaries in Ethiopia: Dynamics of Social Categorization and Differentiation (2014) and The State of Status Groups in Ethiopia: Minorities between Marginalization and Integration (2018).
In the planned project, Epple will explore changes and continuities in the social and ritual meaning of sorghum among selected societies of southern Ethiopia, with a special focus on related concepts of purity and impurity.

Nick G Portrait

Foto: Mirko Krenzel für VolkswagenStiftung

Nikolas Gestrich is a Junior Research Group leader at the Frobenius Institute.
He is an archaeologist specialising in the emergence and nature of complex societies in West Africa.
His current research interests lie in the relationship of Archaeology and other historical disciplines in the African past, and in the history of cities and states in the Ségou region of Mali.
Within the “contested millets” project, Nikolas’ emphasis is on material cultural expression and settlement patterns which accompany past crop regimes.

Karen Hahn

Foto: Dr. Wolfgang Staudt

Dr. Karen Hahn is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Ecology, Evolution and Diversity, Faculty of Biological Sciences, Goethe-University.
She is a vegetation ecologist conducting research in Africa since the 1990th with a strong focus on West African savannas. Her scientific interests comprise the fields of ecology and plant diversity in savanna ecosystems under climate change and land use impact as well as ethnobotanical research on the use and valuation of wild plant species and their sustainable use.
Her special focus in regard to millets is to evaluate the impact of current shifts from these dominant staple crops to cash crop cultivation in West African savanna areas.
The aim is to achieve a better understanding how wild food availabilities closely interconnected with millet farming change under commercial agriculture expansion and which implications this has for smallholders’ wild food provisioning and strategies in regard to wild food tree species.
Foto: Dr. Wolfgang Staudt









Sophia Thubauville is researcher and head of library at the Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main.
She obtained her PhD on questions of gender and agency among the Maale of southern Ethiopia from the University of Mainz. She has been undertaking extensive field research in southern Ethiopia since 2002 and codirected the South Omo Research Center in Jinka in 2009/2010.
Recent publications include the edited volumes ‘Cultural Research in Northeastern Africa. German Histories and Stories’ (2015), ‘Seeking out wise old men. Six decades of Ethiopian Studies at the Frobenius Institute revisited’ (2017), and ‘Anthropology as Homage.
Festschrift for Ivo Strecker’ (2018).
Her current research interests focus on Indian educators in Ethiopia, making archival material accessible in Ethiopian Studies, and informal savings and insurance associations.
Her research within the millet network will focus on the ritual embeddedness of sorghum and the social hierarchy of crops in southern Ethiopia.