Cannibals of Jamestown

Smithsonian unfolds an ugly story archaeologists have uncovered of the first “successful” English settlement in America – at Jamestown, where settlers got so hungry, they apparently ate a 14-year-old girl:

“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” says Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones after they were found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia. “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.”

Sixteen years later, in 1625, George Percy, who had been president of Jamestown during the Starving Time, wrote a letter describing the colonists’ diet during that terrible winter. “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather,” he wrote. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”

Despite this and other textual references to cannibalism, though, there had never been hard physical evidence that it had occurred—until now. [Lead archaeologist William] Kelso’s team discovered the girl’s remains during the summer of 2012. “We found a deposit of refuse that contained butchered horse and dog bones. That was only done in times of extreme hunger. As we excavated, we found human teeth and then a partial human skull,” says Kelso.

Owsley speculates that this particular Jamestown body belonged to a child who likely arrived in the colony during 1609 on one of the resupply ships. She was either a maidservant or the child of a gentleman, and due to the high-protein diet indicated by his team’s isotope analysis of her bones, he suspects the latter. The identity of whoever consumed her is entirely unknown, and Owsley guesses there might have been multiple cannibals involved, because the cut marks on her shin indicate a more skilled butcher than whoever dismembered her head.

It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death. There’s no evidence of murder, and Owsley suspects that this was a case in which hungry colonists simply ate the one remaining food available to them, despite cultural taboos. “I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” he says. “It’s just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”