Findings released by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History today reveal that Jamestown colonist resorted to cannibalism during the winter of 1609-10.
The winter, often referred to as the “starving time” winter, was a period of intense starvation in which 80% of Jamestown colonists died. Historical records from colony leaders like John Smith and George Percy talk of witnessing cannibalism during the famine, but until now no archeological evidence had been found to corroborate these stories.
Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley says bones from a 14-year-old girl have been discovered that display clear signs of cannibalism. The remains were found in Jamestown during the summer of 2012 in a cellar site that had been filled with debris as well as the bones of horses and other animals that were consumed out of desperation during the “starving time” winter.
“This does represent a clear case of dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption," Owsley said. The body, referred to as “Jane”, shows evidence of being crudely chopped at the head and several other places along the body.
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"The skull was split in half, most likely with a lightweight ax or quite possibly, a cleaver," Owsley said. Animal brains and facial tissues were considered valuable meat during the 17th century, so it should come as no surprise that settlers harvested the same portions from the girl as they would have from an animal at the time.
Stories of starving Jamestown colonists eating dogs, mice, show leather, and humans have existed for centuries, but archeologists had always remained skeptical of the cannibalism claims. Today’s findings put those doubts to rest.
“Historians have questioned, well did it happen or not happen?" Owsley said. "And this is very convincing evidence that it did."
The findings show just how far from the romanticized stories of John Smith and Pocahontas the reality of early Jamestown was. Archeologist William Kelso said the team does not believe Jane be the only body found to display evidence of cannibalism.
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Owsley and his team of archeologists will soon be publishing their findings in a book. The skull of Jane will be put on display in Jamestown. Visitors will be warned of the skull before they enter the room where it will reside. At the Smithsonian, visual engineers will create a computer-generated reconstruction of the girl’s face that will be shown in an exhibit about life in early Jamestown.