Europe is experiencing a drought that has made so-called “hunger stones” visible – an ominous warning from the past foreshadowing periods of misery.
common in central Europe, “hunger stones” are rocks in river beds that are only visible when water levels are extremely low.
People who lived between the 15th and 19th centuries in countries like Germany and the Czech Republic left marks on these stones with messages about the catastrophes triggered by the lack of water and memories of the hardships suffered during droughts.
The oldest inscription found in the basin of the River Elbe (which rises in the Czech Republic, flows through Germany and empties into the North Sea) dates from 1616 and is in German. She says wenn du mich siehst, dann weine, which can be translated into Portuguese as “if you see me, cry”.
Inscription on Děčín’s hunger stone reads, in German: ‘Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine’ (If you see me, cry) — Photo: Bernd Gross/CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE
This particular stone is particularly famous because the inhabitants of the region carved the dates of severe droughts into its surface. According to a study published in 2013 by a Czech team, the years 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893 can all be read in stone.
In the city of Pirna, Germany, there is a record in the city archives that points to the existence of a stone with the year 1115 engraved on it, but the exact location of this landmark is no longer known.
“Life will bloom again when this stone disappears,” says another of the carved rocks.
“Who once saw me, cried. Whoever sees me now will cry”, is recorded in another.
“If you see this stone again, you will cry. The water was low here in the year 1417,” says another.
Stones that announce poverty
Droughts were even more severe in the past than they are today, because people had far fewer logistical and technological resources to overcome them. Such low levels of water meant poverty and famine for many cities and towns.
In the past, the Central European area, which includes parts of Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary, depended on the fertile lands along riverbanks to produce food.
Drought ruined crops and made it difficult or impossible to navigate the rivers through which food, supplies of all kinds and charcoal for cooking arrived, threatening the livelihoods of families living along the riverbanks.
Then, after the droughts, came the famines – that’s why the stones are known as hungersteine (hunger stones) in Germany
The stones became visible several times throughout the 20th century, including in 1918 in a period that coincided with the crisis generated by the First World War. There are also landmarks on various stones from the years 1904, 1928, 1963.
In recent years – 2003, 2015, 2018 – the phenomenon of drought at very short intervals has become the most prominent manifestation of climate change in Central Europe.
The years 1893, 1899, 2003 and 2015 were engraved on this stone — Photo: Bernd Gross/CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE
One of the cities to exhibit the most stones – twelve – is Děčín, in the north of the Czech Republic, where the Ploučnice River flows into the River Elbe, very close to the German border.
Another hunger stone is on display at the city museum in Schönebeck, Germany. It is an ancient tombstone that once stood in a harbor basin and in which particularly low water levels were carved.
In 1904 the water there dropped to 47 cm and the visibility of the stone indicated to ships that the level was not enough to navigate.
In addition to the stones, several unexploded WWII bombs were found in the riverbed.
Most “hunger stones” are found in the River Elbe, but there are also rocks of the type in the River Rhine, the Moselle and the Weser, all in Germany.
Schönebeck city museum displays a ‘hunger stone’ — Photo: CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE
In recent weeks, France and Spain have had to ration water due to a severe drought.
The French government has declared that the country is facing the worst drought in history.
3 points to understand the heat wave that hits Europe