A famine is defined as a severe shortage of food that results in starvation and increased mortality. The major causes of famines include extreme population growth, crop failure, cold weather, and bad government policies. In modern times, people have learned to fight hunger with advanced agriculture, including the widespread use of fertilizers and irrigation to produce high-yielding crops. The new farm processes have made it easier to feed people, but the use of pesticides has helped cause the regional food production to peak in many sections of the world, which indicates a potential future with increased famines.
In medieval times, famine was widespread around the world and the human population was devastated by disease, extreme weather, and an endless hunger. In the 20th century, it was estimated that around 70 million people died from famines around the world. When hunger strikes, people start to eat anything deemed food, including human flesh. The extreme hunger causes people to go insane, and history has documented many cases of cannibalism during famine.
10. Jiabiangou Labor Camp
Jiabiangou is a former labor camp located in the northwestern desert region of Gansu Province, China. The camp was used between 1957-1961, and held approximately 3,000 political prisoners. It was a concentration camp used to reeducate people that were determined to be “rightist.” The prison was originally constructed for only 40 to 50 criminals. Starting in the fall of 1960, the camp experienced a massive famine which forced people to eat leaves, tree bark, worms, insects, rats, animal waste, and finally they turned to cannibalism.
By 1961, 2,500 of the 3,000 prisoners in Jiabiangou had died. The 500 people that survived were forced to cannibalize the dead. The stories of survival were chronicled in a book by Yang Xianhui, who traveled around the northwest desert region of China to interview survivors. The book was slightly fictionalized and includes graphic sections in which people chew on body parts and eat fecal seconds. However, cannibalism in Jiabiangou was all too real. Most of the time, the dead bodies were so skeletal that they were hard to eat. The events in Jiabiangou were chronicled in the 2010 award-winning film The Ditch, which tells of people being forced to cope with physical exhaustion, extreme cold, starvation, and death.
9. Starving Time in Jamestown
Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. It was established on May 24, 1607, by the Virginia Company of London. Jamestown served as the capital of the colony until 1699, when it was relocated to Williamsburg. Jamestown was located within the Tsenacommacah, which was populated with around 14,000 native inhabitants of the Powhatan Confederacy. The colonists were forced to rely on trade with the Indians for food. However, after a series of conflicts with the Powhatan, the trade ended.
In 1609, the third supply of ships from England to Jamestown experienced a disaster after the ship Sea Venture got damaged and was left on the reefs of Bermuda. The Sea Venture had the largest amount of food supplies for Jamestown and the settlement was left with no food for the winter. During this time, it was reported that Captain Samuel Argall returned to England and warned officials of the plight on Jamestown, but no further ships were sent.
In the winter of 1609, without supplies from the Sea Venture, Jamestown experienced a massive famine that became known as the Starving Time. Hundreds of colonists experienced a horrible death and only 60 people of the original 500 remained alive into 1610. The scientific evidence gathered from Jamestown has indicated that some turned to cannibalism during the famine. Human bones have been unearthed with cuts that are consistent with butchering for meat. One woman’s skull was found with chops to the forehead, to the back of the head, and to the left side of the temple that showed signs that someone tried to remove her brain. The true prevalence of cannibalism in Jamestown remains unclear.
8. Great Famine of 1315–17
Famines were common in Europe during the Middle Ages. They usually spread due to bad harvests, overpopulation, and diseases like the Black Plague. During this time in history, Britain experienced approximately 95 famines. Between the years of 1348 and 1375, the life expectancy in England was only 17.33 years old.
In 1310-1330, northern Europe saw extremely bad and unpredictable weather. By 1315, food prices exploded, which caused a large famine to spread. In some places the price of food reached a 320% markup and people were forced to grow plants, roots, grasses, nuts, and bark to eat. By 1317, thousands of people died each week and the famine killed millions over a three-year span.
During the famine, the rules of society crumbled and a large percentage of children were abandoned by their families. In fact, the well known fairly tale Hansel and Gretel is based around a similar famine. During the hunger, some parents murdered their children for food. Elsewhere, though reports aren’t widespread, it is thought that prisoners were forced to eat the dead bodies of inmates, and people were caught stealing bodies from graves.
7. Siege of Leningrad
In June of 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and started Operation Barbarossa, which is the largest military invasion in history. The goal of the attack was to control “Leningrad first, Donetsk Basin second, and Moscow third.” Initially, Hitler targeted Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) because of its military importance, industrial power, and symbolic past. With the help of the Finnish Army, the Nazis surrounded the city and took siege to Leningrad for 872 days. The Germans enacted a policy of starvation and attempted to cut off all supplies to the city.
The Soviet population was forced to live with no utilities, water, energy, or food supplies, and the siege has been called the largest destruction of life to any city in modern history. It has been estimated that around 1.5 million people died as a direct result of the siege. However, of the original 3 to 3.5 million people who lived in Leningrad, only 700,000 survived the war.
Soon after the siege started, all of the restaurants in the city closed and food rationing was the only way to stay alive. As you would expect, the value of money was limited and criminal gangs were organized to steal food. People tried to eat a wide variety of products, including paste, leather, fur, lipstick, spices, and medicine, but the famine worsened. Due to the disorganization, the rules of society fell apart and reports of cannibalism spread.
During the siege, the problem with cannibalism was so bad, the police were forced to organize a special unit that was used to combat the predators. Despite living in fear of potential bombardment, families were forced to endure the threat of being stalked and eaten. Since the war, scientists have started to use the information to study famine, hunger, and hunger-related diseases in humans.
6. The Great Hunger (Ireland)
The Great Hunger was a period of mass starvation that occurred in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. It is also referred to as the Irish Potato Famine because the potato blight was the proximate cause of the food shortage. Like most famines, the direct problem was more than just a lack of food, but came about from poor government decisions, which caused some historians to label the famine as genocide. Despite the fact that approximately one million people starved to death and one million emigrated from Ireland during the Great Hunger, the British government failed to help.
The famine permanently changed Ireland’s demographic and political landscape. It strained relations between Ireland and the British Crown, and eventually led to Irish independence. During the famine, a large majority of people in Ireland became malnourished, infections spread, and people got sick. Some of the most deadly diseases were measles, tuberculosis, respiratory infections, whooping cough, and cholera.
In 2012, it was suggested by Professor Cormac O’Grada of the University College Dublin that cannibalism was likely practiced during The Great Hunger. O’Grada identified a series of reports from the famine, including the story of John Connolly from the west of Ireland, who ate the flesh from the body of his dead son. Another case was published on May 23, 1849, and described a starving man that “extracted the heart and liver of a shipwrecked human body” found on the shore. In some instances, extreme hunger caused people to eat family members.
5. Battle of Suiyang
In 757, the Battle of Suiyang was waged between the rebel Yan army and the loyalist forces of the Chinese Tang army. During the fight, the Yan were attempting to besiege the area of Suiyang in order to open territory south of the Huai River. The Yan heavily outnumbered the Tang, but had to bypass a series of strong walls to defeat the enemy. The Tang put General Zhang Xun in charge of defending the city.
Zhang Xun had 7,000 soldiers to protect Suiyang, while the Yan had 150,000. Despite daily sieges, the Tang managed to hold off the Yan for many months. However, by August of 757, all of the animals, insects, and vegetation in the area had been eaten. Zhang Xun made multiple attempts to get food from nearby fortresses, but was denied. In response, people started to starve to death and tried to convince Zhang Xun to surrender, but he refused.
According to the Old Book of Tang, after the food in Suiyang had run out, “people traded their children to eat and cooked bodies of the dead.” Zhang Xun recognized the dire situation, so he murdered his aide and offered her body up for food. At first the soldiers refused, but they soon consumed the flesh and started to eat every woman in the city. After all the women were consumed, the soldiers started to prey on old and young males. In total, the Book of Tang estimates that 20,000 to 30,000 people were cannibalized.
Suiyang became overrun with cannibals and by the time the Yan took the city, only 400 people were left. The Yan attempted to convince Zhang Xun to join their ranks, but he refused and was killed. Only 3 days after the fall of Suiyang, a large Tang army arrived and retook the area, which marked the downfall of the Great Yan.
4. Arduous March in North Korea
In the late 1980’s, the Soviet Union demanded payment from North Korea for all its past and current aid. In 1991, when the USSR collapsed, trade between the two countries stopped and the North Korean economy failed. In response, North Korea couldn’t produce enough food, and they experienced a massive famine between 1994 and 1998 that killed between 250,000 and 3.5 million people. The food shortage was extremely hard for women and small children.
During the disaster, meat was difficult to find and some people turned to cannibalism. People became suspicious of food vendors and children were warned not to enter the streets at night. Similar to other famines, it was said that “people went insane with hunger and even killed and ate their own infants.” People robbed graves and consumed dead bodies. Parents became concerned that their children might get kidnapped, murdered, and sold for food.
In 2013, articles began to surface that North Korea has started to experience another famine because of economic sanctions. The lack of food has caused people to once again turn to cannibalism. One report said that a man was caught digging up his grandchild’s corpse for food, while another says that a group of men were caught boiling children. Due to the secrecy of North Korea, the country has neither confirmed nor denied the recent reports of cannibalism.
In the early 1930’s, the Soviet Union became convinced that its government would benefit from replacing all the individual peasant farms with collective ones. The policy was an attempt to increase the food supply, but instead helped cause one of the biggest famines in history. The collectivization of land meant that the farmers were forced to sell most of their harvest at a cheap price. The workers were also forbidden from eating their own crops.
In 1932, the Soviet Union failed to produce enough grain and the country experienced a massive famine that killed millions. The most impacted areas included Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. The famine was extremely bad in Ukraine, and became known as Holodomor or “hungry mass-death.” It caused between 3 and 5 million deaths and, according to the Kyiv Appellation Court, the famine was responsible for 10 million deaths, with 3.9 million victims and a 6.1 million birth deficit.
During Holodomor, cannibalism was widespread in the Ukraine. People formed gangs, murdered family members, and even consumed dead children. The prevalence of cannibalism caused Soviet officials to release posters saying: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.” In one case, a man named Myron Yemets and his wife were caught cooking their kids and given a sentence of 10 years in jail. It has been estimated that around 2,500 people were arrested for cannibalism during Holodomor, with a large majority of them being mentally ill due to mass starvation.
2. Povolzhye Famine
In 1917, toward the end of World War I, the Russian Civil War was started between the Bolshevik Red Army and the White Army. During this time, the political chaos, extreme violence, and economic isolation in Russia caused widespread disease and food shortages in many areas. By 1921, people in Bolshevik Russia had limited food supplies and a drought sparked a massive famine that threatened over 25 million people in the Volga and Ural River region. By the end of 1922, the famine killed an estimated 5 to 10 million people. The United States and other countries responded by sending relief workers to the area, and fed nearly 11 million Soviet citizens a day in 1921.
During the famine, thousands of Soviet citizens abandoned their homes in search of food. People had to consume clumps of grass, dirt, insects, cats, dogs, clay, horse harnesses, carrion, animal hides, and even turn to cannibalism. A large number of people consumed family members and hunted human meat. The cases of cannibalism were reported to the police, but they did nothing, because eating people was deemed a method of survival. In one report, a woman was caught with boiled human flesh and “jellied minced flesh.” She later admitted to killing her daughter for food.
It has been reported that police were forced to protect cemeteries, so that they weren’t raided by hungry mobs. People started to sell human organs on the black market, and cannibalism became a problem in prisons. Unlike most historical cases of cannibalism, photographs have surfaced that depict cannibals. Some examples can be found in Bertrand Patenaude’s book The Big Show in Bololand, which shows starving people sitting next to cut-up human bodies. There is also evidence that people murdered abandoned children in order to consume their flesh.
1. Great Chinese Famine
China experienced a massive famine between the years 1958-1961. The shortage was caused by drought, poor weather, and the Great Leap Forward, which was a series of laws enacted by the Chinese government. According to official statistics, around 15 million people died. However, historian Frank Dikötter has suggested that at least 45 million people perished. Like any great hunger, malnutrition was widespread and the birth rate was greatly impacted. In China, the phrase “Three Bitter Years” is used to describe the famine.
As the hunger got worse, the Chinese leader Mao Zedong committed atrocities toward the people, which included stealing food and leaving millions of peasants to starve. Doctors were prohibited from listing “starvation” as the cause of death. Yu Dehong remembered, “I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.” A large number of citizens were driven insane by hunger, and violence exploded during the famine.
During the great famine, there were widespread reports of cannibalism. People lost moral strength, and often scavenged for human meat. Some ate their children, while others swapped kids so they wouldn’t feel bad eating their own. A percentage of the food in China became contaminated with human meat, and certain parts of the country were populated with cannibals. The cannibalism during the famine has been described as being “on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century.”