Expert and history buffs have long been fascinated by stories of cannibalism at the early settler colony of Jamestown. While there have been several written accounts of cannibals at Jamestown, VA, it was only a few years ago that physical evidence proved that the settlers did in fact eat their own people in order to survive.
One hundred and four people founded the Virginia colony in 1604. Within nine months, 66 died from starvation and disease and some possibly from drinking water tainted by arsenic and human waste. The settlers, among them John Smith of Pocahontas fame, struggled to grow crops due to drought and relied heavily on supply missions and trade with local Native American tribes to keep them fed.
Desperation set in during the winter of 1609, starting what would become known as the "Starving Time." A supply ship went missing, and the settlers fought with the Powhatan Confederacy, ending their food supply. The settlers resorted to eating their horses, cats, rats and even the leather from their boots. Jamestown president George Percy later wrote in a letter that they were forced to dig up dead bodies and consume their corpses. One of the victims of the Jamestown Colony cannibalism was a young woman who likely arrived with a new group of 300 settlers in 1609. Her timing couldn't have been worse.
In 2012, archeologists from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Historic Jamestowne, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation found the first piece of physical evidence that starving English colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive. The incident took place during what is known as the Starving Time from 1609-1610 when around 80% of the colonists died.
According to William Kelso, director of archeology at Historic Jamestowne, researchers had already known about five written accounts of cannibalism from that time period. It wasn't until this new discovery that they had physical proof that cannibalism actually occurred.
Archeologists from the organization Preservation Virginia discovered the bones of a 14-year-old girl from Jamestown and gave them to Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley for examination. Owlsey's conclusion: “The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete. 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.”
Owsley believes an individual split the young girl's head in half using either a cleaver or a light-weight axe. Researchers excavated cleaver blades and knives from the Jamestown site.
The archeologists named the victim "Jane" and found pieces of her "butchered skull and shinbone" inside the site of James Fort. Her remains were discovered in the cellar of a 17th century building buried 2.5 feet down in an area used for garbage. William Kelso, director of archeology at Historic Jamestowne, was shocked by the finding, having dismissed the reports of cannibalism. Instead, he thought cannibalism rumors were created to make the Virginia Company (who financed the settlement) look bad.
Researchers determined that Jane was 14 years old after examining her shinbone. They also believe she was either a maid or a member of a high-status family because of the high nitrogen content on one of her teeth. That indicated that she ate a lot of protein, foods that were pricey and difficult to acquire.
There are still many questions about the details surrounding Jane's death. Scholars don't know if the settlers murdered her or if she died of natural causes. It's also unclear how many people carved up her corpse. Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley noted, "Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there. Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption."
He added, "I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch. It's just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to."