Emergence of Hunger Stones Signals Worst European Drought in 500 Years

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
hunger stones
The hunger stone (the "Deciner Hungerstein") on the Elbe river in Děčín, Czech Republic has once again become visible in 2022. The stone shows markings of low water levels from different dates, the oldest legible inscription being from 1616. Older inscriptions (from 1417 and 1473, for example) were rubbed off over time by ships at anchor. Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0 DE)

The brutal drought that much of Europe has suffered in 2022 shows little sign of letting up. As the European Drought Observatory reports, 26 percent of the continent and the British Isles is under alert conditions, meaning that the soil is so dry that vegetation is stressed, while another 33 percent is under warning due to a soil moisture deficit.

The drought of 2022 seems to be even worse than the one in 2018, which was the worst on record since 1500 C.E., Andrea Toreti, senior researcher at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, explains in an email interview. "Compared to 2018, this year's drought is more intense, persistent and affects a much broader area," Toreti says.


The drought is so severe that water levels in European rivers have receded so far that wrecks of sunken ships from World War II and even an ancient Roman bridge have become visible.

What Are Hunger Stones?

But the strangest and most ominous sign of the drought's severity may be the reemergence of the so-called "hunger stones" — rocks with inscriptions to record previous instances of severe drought. In the Elbe River near the Czech town of Děčín, a rock gradually rose from the water that bore the message Wenn dumich siehst, dann weine ("If you see me, then weep"), according to The Guardian.

Dozens of the other stone monuments to past drought catastrophes have also become visible in central European rivers. Most are found in the Elbe, though others appear in the Rhine, the Danube and the Moselle rivers. There is one near the small town of Bleckede in Germany that reads: “When this goes under, life will become more colorful again.”


The stone near Děčín contains eroded traces of markings for droughts that occurred back in 1417 and 1473, as well as markings for droughts in 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892 and 1893, according to a 2013 paper by Czech climate researchers in the journal Climate of the Past. The stones also emerged during the 2018 drought.

There doesn't seem to be any information available about who originally placed the hunger stones in rivers, or what purpose they may have served, besides warning people that a sparse autumn harvest might be ahead. As the hunger stones indicate, droughts have been occurring in Europe for centuries.

hunger stones
The stone on the Elbe River in Děčín, Czech Republic, is seen here from above so that it reads correctly from that viewpoint. It is inscribed with the words "If you see me, then weep."
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0 DE)


Droughts and Their Effect on European History

Indeed, severe droughts and the famines that result from them have had a powerful influence upon European history, according to Louis Haas, a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University who specializes in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

"Europe has seen both drought and famine on a consistent basis," Haas says. "It's one of the things that led to the breakdown of Charlemagne's empire." After the king of the Franks, who united much of western Europe, died in 814 C.E., drought and other woes, such as severe winters and cool summers possibly caused by volcanic eruptions elsewhere on the planet, afflicted Carolingian Europe, according to Haas.


Scientists have been able to reconstruct the continent's climate history going back many centuries, and historians have juxtaposed that timeline with written evidence of food shortages, Haas explains.

"We've got some good patterns for Europe. We know simply that from about the year 1000 to 1300, the European climate warmed up, so they had better harvests," says Haas. "But then, after about 1300, Europe again goes into a period of cooling, and wetness, which causes various problems there. And then we know that from about 1315 to 1317 there were really some severe famines hitting Europe with all kinds of consequences."

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This hunger stone becomes visible when the water level drops in the Elbe near Pirna, Germany.
Wikimedia Commons


The Great Famine

The Great Famine of 1315-1317, as it was called, was so severe that it killed as much as 12 percent of the population of Northern Europe, and caused prices of foodstuffs such as wheat and oats to soar so high that many people no longer could afford them. People were so desperate for nourishment that they ate dogs and horses, and may even have resorted to cannibalism, as this article from Smith College's website describes. The deprivation served as a grisly prelude to the Black Death, a plague epidemic that wiped out tens of millions of Europeans between 1347 and 1350.

Whether it was caused by drought or by other extreme conditions, famine eventually became a chronic problem. "This becomes kind of a cycle that keeps coming back to Europe about every 10 years until about 1800," Haas says.


Pre-industrial Europe was extremely vulnerable to famine, because primitive methods of farming produced lower crop yields, so that they didn't accumulate enough surplus to make it through lean years without pain. Losing 30 percent of a crop in a particular year meant that people starved, Haas says.

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Historical low watermarks are visible on this hunger stone, also in the Elbe River.
Libor Elleder/imaggeo.egu.eu (CC BY 3.0)


Drought and Climate Change

In the modern age, Europeans have more options for coping with drought, including importing food from other parts of the world. But even so, Toreti says the current drought could have dire consequences for Europe.

"Agriculture, energy production, river transport as well as ecosystems are all affected by this extreme event. In the agricultural sector, significant reductions in yields of crops, such as grain maize, soybean, sunflowers and rice, are estimated," Toreti says. "The long-term consequences will depend on several factors, including its persistence and its recurrence."


Recurrence is a particular worry, given human-driven climate change that scientists say increases the risk of drought by reducing snowfall and altering the pattern of storms, as this 2021 article from Yale Climate Connections details.

"Attributing this drought event to human-induced climate change requires a dedicated analysis that has not been done yet," Toreti says. "Furthermore, attributing drought still has some challenging aspects." Even so, "the intensification of such extremes in terms of occurrence and severity we are observing in the last years is coherent with climate change."

"Indeed, climate projections show that such extreme droughts may become the norm (meaning occurring almost every year) already at midcentury, if there [aren't] effective mitigation strategies in place," Toreti warns.