Popular television and movies like The Walking Dead, I Am Legend and other post-apocalyptic dramas are usually framed in the modern day or near-future, with the characters battling the odds to stay alive in radically changed living conditions. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road followed characters walking through a nightmare landscape, where people turned to scavenging, brutality, and cannibalism to survive.
But how do humans actually cope with extreme conditions of scarcity and stress? Shanti Morell-Hart’s article, Foodways and Resilience under Apocalyptic Conditions, examines ethnographic examples in conjunction with the archaeological record to investigate “collapse” narratives in human history. The social and physiological effects of starvation are more complex than previously imagined and reactions to starving can result in some incredibly diverse strategies for survival. Foraging and gleaning are documented during famines in Ireland, Russia, Sudan, and China, among many examples, and sometimes this foraging becomes emigration. Property boundaries are defended and social structures, such as respect for elite status, can change rapidly. Finally, the stage of exhaustion wherein people first compete with fellow family members or huddle together, inactive. Morell-Hart illustrates this with a brilliant quote from Pendergast, describing a famine and plague in 1652:
Ireland … now lay void as a wilderness. Five-sixths of her people had perished. Women and children were found daily perishing in ditches, starved. The bodies of many wandering orphans whose fathers had embarked for Spain and whose mothers had died were preyed upon by wolves. In the years 1652 and 1653 the plague and famine had swept away whole counties, that a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature.
Physiological signs of starvation can be seen archaeologically in skeletal remains including hypoplasias (underdevelopment of bones and teeth) and stunted growth, but this is well-known. The question is, how do we see signs of coping with this famine? Morell-Hart tracks redefinitions of foodways, including substituting one kind of food (or food-like substance) for one eaten more traditionally or transforming objects that were previously thought of as inedible to potentially edible food.
There are well-known examples of this transition including eating shoe leather or in extreme examples, cannibalism. Morell-Hart finds it curious that the “popular imagination most readily turns to cannibalism” but most examples of cannibalism “appear to have much more to do with the symbolic aspects of this practice rather than the nutritional.” There is some slippage between what we would think of practical and symbolic eating that may have started in response to a famine but then persisted, the famine response having fundamentally altered the foodways of the group.
One of the more striking ethnographic examples that Morell-Hart cites is second harvest and maroma practiced by some of the Cochimí peoples in Baja California. Second harvest involved scavenging undigested seeds from excrement, cleaning and roasting the seeds, then eating them again. Maroma involved “trying a bit of meat to a piece of string, passing the bit from person to person to swallow, and them immediately extracting the swallowed bit with the string to distribute the digestion of the meat.”
Looking toward the ethnographic and archaeological record further reinforces the incredible diversity and adaptability of humans to survive. Indeed, Morell-Hart finds that “rigidity of food paradigms has led to death, in some cases” when populations “struggled with rationed relief foodstuffs because they were unfamiliar.” Archaeology combined with ethnographic studies can contribute to our understanding of how humans respond to famine and how we reconfigure ideas about food in the long term, and allow us to better respond to food shortage crises around the world.
Morell-Hart, S. (2012). Foodways and Resilience under Apocalyptic Conditions Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 34 (2), 161-171 DOI: 10.1111/j.2153-9561.2012.01075.x