by Dan Vergano, USA TODAY
Published: 05/01/2013 06:00pm
WASHINGTON — Jamestown’s colonists resorted to cannibalism during the “starving time” winter of 1609-10, archaeologists confirmed Wednesday.
In a briefing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, archaeologist Doug Owsley presented the reconstructed skull of a 14-year-old English girl, named “Jane” by the researchers, discovered at the site of the fort and bearing the marks of butchery.
“The skull was split in half, most likely with a lightweight ax or quite possibly, a cleaver,” Owsley said at the briefing. Cut marks crisscrossing the skull and jaw of the girl indicate her flesh, tongue and brains were removed from the skull, Owsley said. Those were traditional cuts for animal butchery of the time, “all parts of the cuisine of the 17th century,” he said.
Jamestown was founded in 1607 by English colonists. The starving time was a period two years later in which 80% of the colonists died. Besieged by Powhatan Indians in their wooden fort, the settlers had been joined by new colonists late that summer, among them women and children, whose main supply ship had disappeared in a storm, leaving them without food. Only 60 of 300 people survived the winter.
“They were so emaciated when they were rescued that they were described as resembling skeletons,” says historian James Horn of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, who spoke at the briefing. Records kept by the colony’s governor, George Percy, make clear references to cannibalism during the winter, Horn says. “The English would have only resorted to cannibalism under the most severe circumstances,” he added.
Owsley reported on the forensic analysis of 17th century human remains and a reconstruction of her appearance made by forensic scientists. The remains had been excavated by Jamestown archaeologists led by William Kelso of the Jamestown Recovery Project in 2012 as part of a 20-year excavation of the James Fort site. “We don’t believe Jane was a lone case,” Kelso said.
“This is amazingly interesting, but it also confirms stories of cannibalism from the settlers themselves,” says Charles Mann, author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. “Things were indeed terrible during those early years,” Mann says, by email.
While not all colonial-era historians agreed that cannibalism took place at Jamestown, most modern ones generally credited the accounts (one man was executed for eating his wife) as reliable. Horn and Owsley argued the butchery marks on Jane provide stronger evidence for the practice. “No one can say with authoritative certainty exactly why this young lady was cut up, but given the context, it looks like butcher’s marks,” Owsley said.
In the briefing, he identified a number of features on the skull and a shin bone that indicated that Jane was cannibalized. Four shallow chops to the forehead were attempted in a first, failed attempt to open the skull. The back of the head was then split open. The final blow split the cranium open.
“The person doing this was not a very good, or experienced butcher,” Owsley said. Chop marks on the shin bone resemble more conventional butchers’ marks seen on animal bones from the time, indicating that more than one person may have been involved in cannibalizing the girl. She was doubtless one of the newly arrived settlers, though still not definitively identified. An exhibition devoted to the discovery will open this Friday at the Historic Jamestowne site, and her reconstructed face will be displayed at the Smithsonian museum.
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