Join the Meeting Place for Moms!
Talk to other moms, share advice, and have fun!

(minimum 6 characters)

'Proof' Jamestown settlers turned to cannibalism

Posted by on May. 1, 2013 at 2:27 PM
  • 68 Replies

1 May 2013 Last updated at 12:48 ET

By Jane O'Brien BBC News, Jamestown, Virginia

Dr Owsley: "When you put it within the context of the archaeological record and also the historic sources that exist... it's very compelling evidence"

Newly discovered human bones prove the first permanent British settlers in North America turned to cannibalism over the cruel winter of 1609-10, US researchers have said.

Scientists found unusual cuts consistent with butchering for meat on human bones dumped in a rubbish pit.

The four-century-old skull and tibia of a teenage girl in James Fort, Virginia, was excavated from the dump last year.

James Fort, founded in 1607, was the earliest part of the Jamestown colony.

'Starving Time'

3-D model of a girl's face Researchers fashioned a three-dimension replica of the girl's face

"The evidence is absolutely consistent with dismemberment and de-fleshing of this body," said Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Written documents had previously suggested the desperate colonists resorted to cannibalism - but the discovery of the 14-year-old girl's bones offer the first scientific proof.

Smithsonian researchers believe the dead child became food for a community struggling to survive the harsh winter of 1609-10, known to historians as the Starving Time.

"There were numerous chops and cuts - chops to the forehead, chops to the back of the skull and also a puncture to the left side of the head that was used to essentially pry off that side," Dr Owsley said. "The purpose was to extract the brain."

The marks also indicate that the tongue and facial tissue were removed.

Continue reading the main story

Jamestown: America's First Colony

  • Considered America's first permanent English colony
  • Established in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock
  • Named after King James, who sponsored the for-profit Virginia Company of London
  • Capt John Smith, who took over leadership of the colony in 1608, established a working relationship with the native Powhatan tribe
  • After Smith returned to England in the autumn of 1609, the Starving Times began

Source: The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

"The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption," he said. "These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used."

The same flesh taken from animals would have been considered a delicacy in the 17th Century. Hogs' heads in particular featured prominently in recipes from the period.

The cuts to the girl's bones also indicate the work was hesitant - whoever performed the dismemberment was not a skilled butcher of animals.

It is also possible the ersatz butcher was a woman, as they made up the majority of the fort's inhabitants.

How the girl died is unknown, but the assault on her body would have taken place very soon afterwards.

A cross in a Jamestown cemetery The original colony survived, though starvation depleted its ranks to 60 people

"The attempt to [remove] the brain is something you would need to do very quickly because brains do not preserve well," Dr Owsley said.

Dr Owsley worked closely with chief archaeologist William Kelso of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. Dr Kelso discovered the girl's bones last year during excavations at James Fort.

Under siege

Little is known about the victim apart from her age and the fact she was English. Her origin has been confirmed by comparative studies on bones in Cambridge.

Further analysis indicates she was at one time well-nourished and ate a lot of meat, a diet consistent with richer classes.

Researchers also have a sense of what she looked like thanks to digital and forensic facial reconstruction. The fragmented skull was scanned, with the digital information providing a virtual model from which to fashion a three-dimensional replica.

Painting of Jamestown Colony A painting of Jamestown circa 1610, a period known as the Starving Time

The Starving Time was one of the most horrific periods of early colonial history. The Fort James settlers were under siege from the indigenous Indian population and had insufficient food to last the winter.

First they ate their horses, then dogs, cats, rats, mice and snakes. Some, to satisfy their cruel hunger, ate the leather of their shoes.

As the weeks turned to months, nothing was spared to maintain life. How many of the growing numbers of dead were cannibalised is unknown. But it is almost certain the girl was not the only victim.

Relief came in the form of Lord De La Warr, who sailed into the settlement with food and new colonists. After six months of siege and starvation, only 60 of the original 300 settlers had survived.

"It's somebody doing what they had to do," said Dr Owsley of the cannibalism.

by on May. 1, 2013 at 2:27 PM
Add your quick reply below:
You must be a member to reply to this post.
Replies (1-10):
by Bronze Member on May. 1, 2013 at 2:29 PM
1 mom liked this
That's interesting. I grew up in the area and remember that was my favorite field trip. It's a neat place to see
by Silver Member on May. 1, 2013 at 2:31 PM
I'm not surprised.
by Bronze Member on May. 1, 2013 at 2:33 PM

This is very interesting. I live in Massachusetts, in an area that was central to the Salem Witch Trials (not Salem, though). There's a lot of interest in colonial history around here, and I've always been amazed at how the colonists managed to live under such unbelievably harsh conditions. Life was extremely tough, for sure.....

by Platinum Member on May. 1, 2013 at 2:35 PM
1 mom liked this

 How sad.  Desperate people will do desperate things.

by Lawyerupbeeches on May. 1, 2013 at 3:01 PM
Interesting. Makes sense though.
by Lois Lane on May. 1, 2013 at 3:12 PM

I heard about this today on NPR....right after I had eaten lunch. It was not the best time to hear the graphic nature of the story, that's for sure. 

I can't say I'm shocked, though. Desperate people do desperate things. Look at the soccer team that crashed in the Andes mountains back in the 70s and had to eat the dead to survive. I would like to think I'd never do that, but who knows for sure until you're actually in that position.

by Ruby Member on May. 3, 2013 at 6:21 PM
1 mom liked this

People do what they have to do to survive. And they always find a way to justify it.

by Member on May. 3, 2013 at 7:21 PM

Wow... that was a great interesting read lol not the first story i have read about people turning to that to survive, and our first instinct is self preservation, an need to survive... no matter what... but it must of been sooooo horrible...

by Ruby Member on May. 3, 2013 at 9:39 PM
1 mom liked this

I don't think there is any kind of moral issue with eating the dead in order to survive if it is down to death or that.  

If you read the book Alive about the soccer team who crashed in the Andes mountains you will get a very interesting perspective.  They were able to survive for months, long enough to be found and to get married and have families. (most of them were young, 18-24 or so.)  The ones who couldn't bring themselves to do it died.  I certainly don't judge them for it, in fact it took strength and will to do so.

by Bronze Member on May. 3, 2013 at 9:43 PM
1 mom liked this

Gosh they sure skipped that tid bit on our 4th grade field trip 0.o

Very interesting though.  They did what they had too I guess. I wonder if the girl had any idea that would be her fate before she died. 

Oh you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with those who are patient-

Al Quran 2-153

CafeMom Tickers

Add your quick reply below:
You must be a member to reply to this post.
Join the Meeting Place for Moms!
Talk to other moms, share advice, and have fun!

(minimum 6 characters)