Early American settlers resorted to cannibalism, researchers say
Remains of dismembered 14-year-old girl found in Jamestown colony site
Stories of early American settlers are usually fraught with hardship, starvation and illness. Newcomers from Europe fond themselves tossed to an unforgiving and untended land, and men, women and children were forced to do anything in order to survive. Researchers now say that the settlers of 1609's Jamestown Colony in Virginia resorted to the unthinkable - perhaps killing and devouring a 14-year-old girl to stay alive.
Four shallow chop marks on the top of the girl's skull, evidence of cannibalism during the "starving time" over the winter of 1609-1610.
Owsley, from his analysis says there is clear evidence of force upon the girl's remains. "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." Owsley notes that "penetrating wounds 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."
Excavations at the site uncovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the "Starving Time." The remains of the 14-year-old English girl, dubbed by researchers as "Jane," pose many uncomfortable questions.
It's not yet known if "Jane" was murdered or died of natural causes, whether multiple people participated in the butchering or it was a solo act.
Owsley reiterated at a press conference that the discovery provides the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas. "Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there," Owsley says. "Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption."
Founded in 1607 by 104 settlers aboard three ships, the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed, only 38 survived the first nine months of life in Jamestown. Many died of starvation and disease, and there are theories that the local drinking water had been contaminated by arsenic and human feces.
Settlers arrived during one of one of the worst regional droughts in centuries. Many settlers were unaccustomed to hard agricultural labor, and the survivors remained dependent on supplies brought by subsequent missions, as well as trade with Native Americans.
Extreme drought, hostile relations with members of the local Powhatan Confederacy and the fact that a supply ship was lost at sea put the colonists in the winter of 1609 in a truly desperate position.
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, including a passage which read settlers were led "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."
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.
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