View Full Version : The Great Irish Famine: Identifying Starvation in the Tissues of Victims Using ....

08-24-2016, 07:05 PM
For those who are interested:

The Great Irish Famine: Identifying

Starvation in the Tissues of Victims Using

Stable Isotope Analysis of Bone and

Incremental Dentine Collagen

Julia Beaumont1*, Janet Montgomery2
1 School of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, Bradford, United Kingdom, 2 Department of

Archaeology, Durham University, Durham, United Kingdom

* [email protected]


The major components of human diet both past and present may be estimated by measur- ing the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios (δ13C and δ15N) of the collagenous proteins in bone and tooth dentine. However, the results from these two tissues differ substantially: bone collagen records a multi-year average whilst primary dentine records and retains time- bound isotope ratios deriving from the period of tooth development. Recent studies har- nessing a sub-annual temporal sampling resolution have shed new light on the individual dietary histories of our ancestors by identifying unexpected radical short-term dietary changes, the duration of breastfeeding and migration where dietary change occurs, and by raising questions regarding factors other than diet that may impact on δ13C and δ15N val- ues. Here we show that the dentine δ13C and δ15N profiles of workhouse inmates dating from the Great Irish Famine of the 19th century not only record the expected dietary change from C3 potatoes to C4 maize, but when used together they also document prolonged nutri- tional and other physiological stress resulting from insufficient sustenance. In the adults, the influence of the maize-based diet is seen in the δ13C difference between dentine (formed in childhood) and rib (representing an average from the last few years of life). The demon- strated effects of stress on the δ13C and δ15N values will have an impact on the interpreta- tions of diet in past populations even in slow-turnover tissues such as compact bone. This technique also has applicability in the investigation of modern children subject to nutritional distress where hair and nails are unavailable or do not record an adequate period of time


Famine was a regular occurrence in post-medieval, pre-Industrial Revolution Europe [1,2]. Where the population was mainly rural, any factor which reduced the quantity of food crops, whether climate, military action, or pestilence, would have a devastating effect on the prices of food and the people who relied on the crops for their calories [3]. In the Great Famine of 1845– 46, an attempt was made by Sir Robert Peel to provide relief for the Irish by the importation of maize (‘Indian meal’) from America. This unfamiliar food was unpopular, difficult to process and cook: its yellow colour and effects on the intestines of the starving Irish led to it being renamed ‘Peel’s Brimstone’[4]. The δ13C values of potatoes, a C3 plant and the main food crop in Ireland prior to the Famine, and maize, a C4 plant which as a group are largely absent from Ireland at this time, are measurably different and this isotopic shift offers the opportunity to investigate dietary change in a population suffering from documented under-nutrition ....



08-24-2016, 09:36 PM
Famine was a regular occurrence in post-medieval, pre-Industrial Revolution Europe. Where the population was mainly rural, any factor which reduced the quantity of food crops, whether climate, military action, or pestilence, would have a devastating effect on the prices of food and the people who relied on the crops for their calories.
This needs to be generally understood.
The Great Famine in Ireland was a terrible tragedy.
Some sources say a famine in the preceding century was as bad. But we know relatively little about it.
Famines were frequent. Two factors made this one different.
The potato was a wonderful source of nourishment for many who had no other recourse and not only provided food, but also brought increases in population. However, when it failed, there was catastrophe, which could have been better helped by public policy.
Newspapers enabled news to get out and to raise pressure for something to be done. Earlier problems were left largely to the landowner and local authorities. It is in the nineteenth century that such issues begin to come to national interest in a timely fashion and generate pressure for assistance. (Although there are a few earlier instances.)
Maybe some of the insights from this study may help identify some earlier famine victims.

08-25-2016, 12:05 AM
Two factors made this one different.
You miss the single greatest difference in this famine: Ireland was still producing plenty of food to feed itself, but was forced to export this food (and monetary equivalents) to absentee overlords in England instead. The Wikipedia article on this topic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)#Causes_and_contributing_fac tors) is quite enlightening, and brutally honest--I encourage a full reading. Here are just a few excerpts:
O'Connell then pointed out the means used by the Belgian legislature during the same season: shutting their ports against the export of provisions, but opening them to imports. He suggested that, if Ireland had a domestic Parliament, the ports would be thrown open and the abundant crops raised in Ireland would be kept for the people of Ireland.
According to Charles Gavan Duffy, The Nation insisted that the one remedy was that which the rest of Europe had adopted, which even the parliaments of the Pale had adopted in periods of distress, which was to retain in the country the food raised by her people till the people were fed.
The new Whig administration, influenced by the doctrine of laissez-faire, believed that the market would provide the food needed, and they refused to intervene against food exports to England, then halted the previous government's food and relief works, leaving many hundreds of thousands of people without any work, money, or food.
When Ireland had experienced a famine in 1782–83, ports were closed to keep Irish-grown food in Ireland to feed the Irish. Local food prices promptly dropped. Merchants lobbied against the export ban, but government in the 1780s overrode their protests. No such export ban happened in the 1840s.
Throughout the entire period of the Famine, Ireland was exporting enormous quantities of food.
She also writes that Irish exports of calves, livestock (except pigs), bacon, and ham actually increased during the Famine. This food was shipped under British military guard from the most famine-stricken parts of Ireland.
The problem in Ireland was not lack of food, which was plentiful, but the price of it, which was beyond the reach of the poor.

The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith wrote in The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845–1849 that no issue has provoked so much anger and embittered relations between England and Ireland "as the indisputable fact that huge quantities of food were exported from Ireland to England throughout the period when the people of Ireland were dying of starvation." John Ranelagh writes that Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout most of the five-year famine.

An analogous system of exploitation operated in the province of Galicia ruled by the Austrian Empire. Wikipedia is again fairly useful here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_Austrian_Galicia):
The new state borders [due to the partitioning of Poland] had cut Galicia off from many of its traditional trade routes and markets of the Polish sphere, resulting in stagnation of economic life and decline of Galician towns. Lviv lost its status as a significant trade center. After a short period of limited investments, the Austrian government started a fiscal exploitation of Galicia and drained the region of manpower through conscription to imperial army. The Austrians decided that Galicia should not develop industrially but remain an agricultural area that would serve as a supplier of food products and raw materials to other Habsburg provinces. New taxes were instituted, investments were discouraged, and cities and towns were neglected.
The Austrian imperial government showed absolutely no interest in schooling and subsequent reform such as industrialization, which would upset the system in which Galicia was a cheap provider of agricultural products for the Empire, and a market for inferior industrial goods, a situation profitable for both the governments and the landowners.
The near constant famines in Galicia, resulting in 50,000 deaths a year, have been described as endemic.