Little Barley

(Hordeum pussilum)

Little Barley (Hordeum pussilum) is a grass native to the southeast and Midwestern United States.  In late spring, this unassuming grass produces a starchy grain that Indigenous people living in Arkansas and the southeast in general used as food. Spring is a time when food stores run low and there is not a lot of plants around to eat yet, so this must have made little barley a significant food source. There is archeological evidence for its use as food at least by about 2000 years ago. While changes in the seed or plant form has not been observed to indicate formal domestication, it is clear that people were intentionally planting little barley based on its association with other domesticated plants like goosefoot.

Little Barley

Little Barley

Little Barley

Little barley seed heads dry by June and are ready to harvest.

It is not yet clear just how Native people processed little barley to remove the outer seed coat before eating it. The plants may have been selected for ease of removal of this seed covering.

Little Barley References

Adams, Karen R.

1987    Little Barley (Hordeum pusillum) as a Possible New World Domesticate. In La Ciudad, Specialized Studies in Economy, Environment, and Culture of La Ciudad, Part III, edited by JoAnn E. Kisslburg, Glen E. Rice, and Brenda L. Shears, pp.203-237. Arizona State University Anthropological Field Studies 20.

2014    Little Barley Grass (Hordeum pusillum Nutt.): A Prehispanic New World Domesticate Lost to History. In New Lives for Ancient and Extinct Crops, edited by Paul E. Minnis, pp. 139-179. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.


Fritz, Gayle J.

2019    Feeding Cahokia: Early Agriculture in the North American Heartland. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.


Hunter, Andrea 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.


Mueller, Natalie G., Gaye J. Fritz, Paul Patton, Stephen Carmody, and Elizabeth T. Horton

2017    Growing the Lost Crops of Eastern North America’s Original Agricultural System, Nature Plants 3: 1-5.


Smith, Bruce D., and Richard A. Yarnell

 2009   Initial Formation of an Indigenous Crop Complex in Eastern North America at 3800 B.P. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(16):6561-6566.