Nearly 3,000 years ago, according to the Old Testament, an army of Arameans, led by King Ben-hadad, besieged the West Bank city of Samaria. Cut off from its agricultural hinterlands, the city soon ran out of food. In desperation, many people appear to have resorted to consuming barely edible sources of nutrients, including “dove’s dung” and the scraps of flesh that they could scavenge from donkeys’ skulls. Eventually, even those grew scarce, and the Bible recounts that the starving inhabitants of the city turned to killing and eating their own children.
Such a grotesque story could be written off as the result of authorial license or historical error. But as the economic historian Cormac Ó Gráda writes in his new book, Eating People Is Wrong, evidence of famine-induced cannibalism abounds, even in the past century. Separating truth from fiction can be difficult, and narratives of cannibalism are inevitably subject to political bias, but Ó Gráda is a careful investigator, closely examining history for what he refers to as “famine’s darkest secret.”
In truly desperate times, Ó Gráda writes, people’s animal instincts can overcome even the sturdiest veneer of civilization. Cannibalism appears to have reared its head in the massive Soviet famines of the 1920s and 1930s in Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and elsewhere, which have been detailed in many places, including in the historian Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
Cannibalism may headline Ó Gráda’s book, but it is the subject of only his first essay. The rest of the collection ranges widely, exploring the root causes of food shortages and investigating how to prevent them. One essay examines how famines can arise from government negligence; another highlights the importance of defining and understanding famine as distinct from chronic hunger.
Taken together, the essays offer fresh and provocative insights. The book is uneven—some chapters will be dense for a reader without a background in economics or statistics; other chapters are more accessible. The
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