The Invisible Hunger: Is Famine Identifiable from the Archaeological Record?

Famine, as defined by an acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term or cyclical) period of starvation, is identifiable in the historical period from written records and potentially with archaeological corroboration, but in prehistory other approaches must be employed. Several of these are discussed including studies of diet and nutrition, paleodemography, environmental catalysts, and funerary ritual. Despite a multifactorial analysis integrating palynology, dendrochronology, stable isotope analyses, osteoarchaeology, and social archaeology, difficulties in contemporizing paleodemographic events them with osteological assemblages are substantial enough that the detection of a famine is not possible solely from the archaeological record. More significant is the conclusion that all apparent indicators for acute or chronic starvation are also representative of epidemic disease. Because of this uncertainty, it is not possible to identify famine in prehistory.