Hordeum pusillum Nutt.

Little barley



       This starchy seed is widespread at sites in the Midwest and Southeast, and is part of the indigeneous complex of pre-maize domesticates. Little barley is also seen in archaeobotanical samples from the Greater Southwest. There are seven native Hordeum species in North America, but the focus of this description is the cultivated H. pusillum.



       The caryopsis (grass fruit) of H. pusillum is fairly small, with modern wild seeds averaging 2.98 mm (range of 2.75-3.30) in length and 1.38 mm (range of 1.30-1.50) in width (Hunter 1992:31). A broad central groove, with a mid-ridge, runs the length of the ventral surface (see Figure 1). There may be ridges running along the edges of the groove as well. The ventral side is slightly convex, while the dorsal surface is flat to slightly convex, with the embryo located near the base. The embryo, and usually also the radicle, are destroyed during carbonization, leaving only the shield-shaped scutellum (Hunter 1992:29).

       Little barley caryopses are often found carbonized. Carbonized little barley caryopses are 9% smaller in length and 5% larger in width than uncarbonized caryopses. Average length and width of carbonized caryopses are 2.76 and 1.44 mm, respectively (Hunter 1992:29).

       Archaeologically, the caryopsis is usually found without the lemma and palea, although some archaeological specimens have been recovered with remnants of the lemma and palea (Dunne and Green 1998) (see Figure 2).


Archaeological Distribution

       Archaeologically, little barley has been recovered from sites in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin (Hunter 1992), and also in the Southwest. The earliest midwestern sites from which little barley has been recovered are Koster North and Napoleon Hollow, both Middle Archaic sites in Illinois. Little barley has been found at sites representing every period from the Middle Archaic through the Mississippian, Oneota, and protohistoric periods (Hunter 1992).

       Little barley is a common seed in paleoethnobotanical samples from Middle and Late Woodland occupations. Little barley is the third most common seed from Middle Woodland levels at Smiling Dan, Illinois, representing 15% of the 14,000 identifiable seeds (Asch and Asch 1985:192). H. pusillum represented from 21 to over 50% of seeds at four Late Woodland or Mississippian sites in Illinois (Asch and Asch 1985:192). It is the most frequent carbonized seed type in the Terminal Archaic levels at the Gast Spring site in southern Iowa (Dunne and Green 1998:63). In many cases, including Smiling Dan and Gast Spring, little barley is found in association with known domesticates such as Chenopodium berlandieri ssp. jonesianum and cucurbits.


The Modern Plant and its Distribution

       Little barley is an annual grass with long, bristly awns on the mature heads. The plants are short (10 to 40 cm), with mature spikelets ranging from 12 to 20 mm long from base to awn tip. Little barley matures in late spring, from mid-May to mid-June (Hunter 1992:23,26).

       H. pusillum occurs in cultivated or disturbed ground such as the edge of fields or roads. It grows across much of the United States from Delaware in the northeast to Florida in the south, and California and Washington in the west and northwest (Steyermark 1963:132-133). The range and abundance of little barley increased after European colonization, with a rapid spread along railways and highways (Asch and Asch 1985:193).


Domesticatory Status

       While most paleoethnobotanists appear to agree that little barley was part of a prehistoric complex of cultivated small seed crops, there is disagreement about whether or not little barley was domesticated. Evidence for true domestication should include morphological change in the caryopsis. While this change often includes an increase in seed size, this is not always the case. Hunter (1992) demonstrates a minor increase in seed size, but acknowledges that it is not as significant an increase as is needed to confirm domestication.

       Old World domestic barleys, however, are distinguished largely by the archaeological presence of naked-seeded varieties (Asch and Asch 1985:194). Wild barley caryopses, including little barley caryopses, do not readily separate from the spikelets. Bohrer (1984) has claimed that because carbonized archaeological little barley seeds in the Southwest lack hulls, that there was a naked-grain form of little barley, indicating domestication. Asch and Asch (1985) propose that this represents differential preservation of the bracts and caryopses during carbonization, not a sign of morphological change. Dunne and Green (1998) report adhering palea and lemma tissue on barley grains found at the Gast Spring site in Iowa, demonstrating that parts of the hull and spikelet can survive carbonization. Experimental charring by the author of whole little barley spikelets confirms that the entire spikelet, including awns, can survive charring intact, and that the caryopsis is almost impossible to separate once charred.

       Hunter (1992) describes other morphological changes in archaeological little barley: a “wrinkling” of the ventral surface and a twisting of the grains. Few other archaeologists appear to support these findings.  Dunne and Green (1998) did not observe either of these features in the Gast Spring sample, but take this to mean that the little barley at that site was not domesticated, not to mean that Hunter’s indicators are incorrect in general.



       The status of little barley as a domesticated plant in Eastern North America is still undecided. While most, if not all paleoethnobotanists include little barely in the suite of small-seeded plants intentionally propagated in prehistoric eastern North America, few seem convinced of little barley’s status as a domesticated plant. Cultivation is inferred not from morphological changes, but from little barley’s association with the other cultivated and domesticated plants, and from the relatively large concentrations of little barley caryopses found at sites across the Midwest and Midsouth.

       Little barley does grow in relatively dense stands without cultivation and could have been harvested as a wild food source rather than a cultivated crop. However, as noted above, following European settlement, little barley has become more abundant, and modern stands may show little resemblance to prehistoric wild stands. Whether cultivated or not, little barley would have provided a nutritious food source during a time of year when other plant foods are scarce. The other small-seeded crops (excluding maygrass) and the nuts utilized by prehistoric people are all available in the fall, while maygrass and little barley provide spring plantfood sources.



Asch, D. L., and N. B. Asch

    1985   Prehistoric plant cultivation in west-central Illinois. In Prehistoric Food Production in North
            America, edited by R. I. Ford, pp. 149-203. Anthropological Papers No. 75.  Museum of
            Anthropology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Bohrer, V. L.

    1984   Domesticated and wild crops in the CAEP study area. In Prehistoric Cultural Development in
            Central Arizona: Archaeology of the Upper New River Region, edited by P. Spoerl and G.
            Gemerman, pp. 183-259. Occasional Paper No. 5. Center for Archaeological Investigations,
            Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

Dunne, M. T., and W. Green

    1998   Terminal Archaic and Early Woodland plant use at the Gast Spring site (13LA152), southeast
            Iowa. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 23(1):45-48.

Hunter, A. A.

    1992   Utilization of Hordeum pusillum (Little Barley) in the Midwest United States: Applying
            Rindos’Co-evolutionary Model of Domestication. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of
            Anthropology, University of Missouri, Columbia.

Steyermark, J. A.

    1963   Flora of Missouri. Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Written by: Angela Gordon