Hunger – crisis – famine? Nutritional status in South-West Germany and North Switzerland from the Neolithic to 19th century

Dr. Miriam Haidle

Nutritional conditions of prehistoric and historic populations can be modelled by theoretical estimations of available food resources per person, by written sources about food prices, losses of harvests and famines, or by analysis of the nutritional status of skeletons. There are several traits of general protein-energy-malnutrition cited in the literature. The best known are enamel hypoplasias, Harris’s lines as unspecific markers of single interruptions in growth caused by individual crisis of nutrition and health, and body height as a cumulative marker of supply-related stress during phases of growth. Despite all methodological problems, the skeletal approach to the assessment of nutritional status is the most useful for comparisons among several populations from different time periods or regions and may also be used to distinguish among social groups within a population.

In a first theoretical part, the thesis discusses economic-historical statements on nutrition in prehistoric and historic periods, economic and social historical theories on the stability of food supply, the development and use of human food resources in the Holocene, definitions of ‘malnutrition’, ‘hunger’, ‘crisis’ and ‘famine’ and aspects of development and management of crises. Chapters on physical consequences of energy-protein-malnutrition and the interpretation and comparison of skeletal series lead up to the second empirical part. Eleven skeletal series from South-West Germany dating from the Neolithic to early modern times have been compared to the reference series of Basel St. Johann (19th century) regarding enamel hypoplasias, Harris’s lines and body height. In this study no evidence was found for the assumption of alternating times of extraordinary plenty and catastrophic periods of famine. Rather, small deviations in food supply have to be assumed: there is no doubt that from time to time serious crises in food supply and, in exceptional cases, famines occurred; the image of a starving population, suffering over considerable periods on a bare subsistence level, has to be rejected.

last update: July 2009