Cannibalism Evidence Found at Jamestown Settlement by Scientists

Photographer: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A partial skull and jaw bone from a 14-year-old English girl, found in a trash pit at the colony, showed signs of butchering, scientists at Preservation Virginia and the Smithsonian Institution said in an article published in Smithsonian Magazine. Close

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Photographer: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A partial skull and jaw bone from a 14-year-old English girl, found in a trash pit at the colony, showed signs of butchering, scientists at Preservation Virginia and the Smithsonian Institution said in an article published in Smithsonian Magazine.

Settlers at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in what would become the U.S., resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter of 1609-1610, according to the first physical evidence recovered by researchers.

A partial skull and jaw bone from a 14-year-old English girl, found in a trash pit at the colony, showed signs of butchering, scientists at Preservation Virginia and the Smithsonian Institution said in an article published in Smithsonian Magazine. Chop marks to the forehead and the back of the skull showed the girl’s head had been split open, and knife marks on the jaw showed flesh had been removed from her face.

The marks on the girl’s bones are “physical evidence consistent with survival cannibalism,” the researchers said yesterday in a statement. It’s not clear from the remains how she died or whether she was the victim of a homicide.

“Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there,” Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones, said in the article. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it’s clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”

The winter of 1609-1610 is known as “the Starving Time” for Jamestown, when more than 200 settlers died from starvation, sickness and Indian attacks.

‘Weake Fellowes’

There are written accounts of cannibalism during the period, including by the colony’s former president, George Percy. Percy wrote in 1625 that colonists had dug up bodies from graves and eaten them, and that “some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes,” according to the magazine.

Jamestown was established near present-day Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1607 by 104 English colonists, and only 38 of the original settlers survived the first nine months of life in the New World. The group arrived during a severe drought and had little experience farming, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

The girl, Jane, probably arrived in the colony during 1609 on a resupply ship, Owsley said. Her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were probably eaten, the researcher said.

“I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” the magazine reported Owsley as saying. “It’s just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Wayne in Washington at awayne3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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