Ancient Grains and How to Grind Them: Cooking in Prehistoric Africa

High Museum of Art
Feb 19 · 5 min read

On this historical culinary journey, Lauren Tate Baeza introduces three staple grains from ancient Africa, how they were prepared, and how you can cook them today.

By Lauren Tate Baeza, Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art, High Museum of Art

Photo: The Washington Post/Getty

The Neolithic period was a time of global agricultural revolution marking the beginning of human settlements and more rapid population growth. Wild grasses were among the first widely domesticated plant species, and they were bred to produce crops such as wheat, corn, sorghum, and varietal millets. In Africa, sorghum and a range of millets — including pearl millet, finger millet, teff, fonio, and guinea millet — were developed, and they remain important staples for hundreds of millions of people.

The smooth, oblong tool below is an ancient grain cultivation implement. This object is one of several Neolithic millstones and hand tools in the High’s African Art collection. These tools are early mortars, pestles, and grinders, and they were used to pound and mill African cereals.

Long, rounded Neolithic stone tool.

The artifacts hail from northwestern Niger, near the nation’s modern-day border with Mali in the Agadez Region.

Two round stones — one stationary, the other rotating above it — ground grains such as sorghum, teff, and pearl millet into flours purposed for multiple gastronomic uses. See similar quern stones and rollers in action here, and see a millstone in action in this video.

Circular Neolithic stone tool with a small hole in the center.
Oval-shaped Neolithic stone tool with a large hole in the center.
Unidentified Artist, Niger, Tool, undated (2008.272); Unidentified Artist, Niger, Tool, undated (2008.271); Unidentified Artist, Niger, Tool, undated (2008.270).

Read on to learn about these ancient grains, and you’ll also find videos of African recipes featuring each grain. All the selected chefs have incredible platforms that not only feature their cooking but also engage the histories of the prepared dishes and approach culinary practice as cultural preservation work. Check out @lesateliersdeiba, @medskuldropout, and @magrizamademecook on Instagram.

Animated map showing how ancient grains spread across the world.
This animated map illustrates how four of the ancient world’s key domesticated grain crops spread across the Old World between 7,000 and 3,500 years ago. (Credit: Javier Ventura/Washington U. in St. Louis, via Futurity.org)

Sorghum

Sorghum is a cereal grain that grows in both subtropical and semiarid regions. Originally domesticated in Africa, it adapted to the continent’s climates. It is drought resistant, survives periods of waterlogging, and matures quickly, enabling several harvests per year. The impressive grain was first cultivated in Northeastern Africa, with evidence of domesticated species found at archeological sites near the eastern Egypt-Sudan border dated 8000 BCE.

Sorghum

Paleoethnobotanists also report its later adaptation and cultivation in the Ethiopian highlands four thousand years ago.

Sorghum, because of its caloric and nutritional content, was invaluable for Neolithic and Iron Age agricultural societies of the eastern Sahel. It then spread west across the Sahelian belt to the Niger River Basin, adapting to a range of ecological environments and leading to its cultivation in all regions of the continent, where it continues to be a vital and versatile cereal.

Sorghum is paired with pearl millet to make Sahelian couscous. It is also pounded into flour used to make leavened bread and dumplings and is essential for brewing beer and making porridges. Porridge, which can be made with both fermented and unfermented sorghum, is an important breakfast throughout the continent. The filling meal provides carbohydrate energy packed with essential fatty and amino acids.

Sorghum sour porridge by @magrizamademecook

Teff

Teff is an annual cereal grain indigenous to Ethiopia and Eritrea. For thousands of years, it has been the region’s staple, especially in Western Ethiopia, where it accounts for two-thirds of consumed dietary protein. The nutritious grain is also loaded with iron, fiber, calcium, and magnesium.

Teff

Evidence of domesticated teff species dates back as far as 3350 BCE, when seminomadic groups found the tiny grain well suited for carriage across great distances. It requires little processing for cooking, and it can thrive in more extreme conditions than other millets, such as high altitudes and limited-rainfall environments. Teff is particularly resistant to plant diseases and pests, lending to its persistence despite bouts of catastrophic weather events and ecological change over thousands of years.

This ancient cereal is most commonly ground into a flour used to make injera, a traditional fermented flatbread central to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine. Injera is consumed in spiritual and cultural ceremony and in daily meals. The spongy bread functions as a large plate upon which meat and vegetable stews (called wats or wots) are served. Torn pieces of injera also function as a sort of edible cutlery used to scoop up main and side dishes.

Doro wot with injera recipe by @medskuldropout

Pearl Millet

In some of the world’s driest regions, pearl millet is among the most important cereals for food security. The drought-tolerant grain was cultivated from West African wild grasses. Today, the largest producers of African pearl millet are Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Sudan, though an additional twenty-six African nations also grow the grain in smaller quantities.

Pearl millet

Domestication began some four thousand years ago in Northern Mali, where the variety adapted particularly well and became the region’s most productive cereal grain. Cultivation spread east across the Sahel to Sudan, with evidence of crop domestication in the east as early as 2 BCE.

Pearl millet is used in traditional dishes throughout the continent. Like sorghum, it is used to make fermented and unfermented porridges as well as beer and wine. Pearl millet is a key ingredient in the preparation of couscous, pap, and tô — starches that serve as bases for meals and vessels for stews and sauces. It is also pounded into flour used to make breads, fritters, and sweet deserts. High in protein, fiber, and the amino acid lysine, pearl millet flour is commonly blended with other flours, such as corn or cassava, depending on desired taste and texture.

Thiéré bomb (millet couscous) by @lesateliersdeiba

See a Neolithic stone tool on view in the African art collection at the High Museum of Art (Skyway Gallery 401 in the Stent Family Wing).

Stay connected! Follow us:
Medium | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

High Museum of Art

Stories from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store