Photograph courtesy Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian; art by StudioEIS
Shallow chops, top, on the victim's skull. Photograph courtesy Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian
Published May 1, 2013
Archaeologists have discovered the first physical evidence of cannibalism by desperate English colonists driven by hunger during the Starving Time of 1609-1610 at Jamestown, Virginia (map)—the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
The announcement was made by a team of researchers from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Historic Jamestowne, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation at a press conference May 1 in Washington, D.C.
There are five historical accounts written by or about Jamestown colonists that reference cannibalism, but this is the first time it’s been proven, said William Kelso, director of archeology at Historic Jamestowne.
“This is a very rare find,” said James Horn, vice president of research for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “It is the only artifactual evidence of cannibalism by Europeans at any European colony—Spanish, French, English, or Dutch—throughout the colonial period from about 1500 to 1800.”
Portions of the butchered skull and shinbone of a 14-year-old girl from England, dubbed “Jane” by researchers, were unearthed by Jamestown archaeologists last year. They found the remains about 2.5 feet (0.8 meters) down in a 17th century trash deposit in the cellar of a building built in 1608 inside the James Fort site.
Kelso then asked Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, to examine the remains and determine if she was killed or cannibalized.
Kelso said he hadn't believed previous historical accounts regarding cannibalism. He thought they were politically motivated, intended to discredit the Virginia Company—the stockholders who provisioned and financed the settlement.
"Now, I know the accounts are true," he said.
Since the excavation of James Fort began in 1994, the discovery is second only to the discovery of the fort, he added.
The findings answer a longstanding question among historians about the occurrence of cannibalism at the settlement during the winter of 1609, when about 80 percent of the colonists died. (Read about the real story of Jamestown in National Geographic magazine.)
Owsley described multiple chop and cut marks on the girl’s skull that were made by one or more assailants after she died. “They were clearly interested in cheek meat, muscles of the face, tongue, and brain,” he said. Jane’s hair was not removed.
One of the foremost forensic anthropologists in the world, Owsley has analyzed numerous skeletal remains of prehistoric people who were victims of cannibalism. Their bones were similar to Jane's in that they had cut marks and were splintered and fragmented, he said.
Four closely spaced chop marks in her forehead indicated a failed attempt to split her skull open, Owsley said. The close proximity of the unsuccessful blows indicates that she was already dead, or they would have been more haphazard, he explained.
The back of her skull was then cracked open by a series of chops by a light weight axe or cleaver, he said.
Cleaver blades and knives excavated from the Jamestown site were compared to the blows, and Owsley said he thinks a cleaver was used.
There were also numerous cuts, saw marks, and gouges along her lower jaw made by the tip of a knife to get to the meat, and to remove throat tissue and the tongue, he said.
Owsley said the cutting was not done by an experienced butcher, except possibly the chops to the shinbone. “There is a hesitancy, trial, and tentativeness in the marks that is not seen in animal butchery,” he said.
“The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609-1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl’s body,” Owsley added.
Although only part of the skull is still intact, researchers were able to produce a facial reconstruction of Jane by digitally creating a 3-D skull.
Historic Jamestowne’s Kelso said that settling Jamestown was “a very dark undertaking.” This evidence of cannibalism “almost puts you in the time,” he added. (Learn about the harsh realities of life in Jamestown.)
Since only ten percent of Jane’s skeleton has been recovered, researchers have not been able to tell much about her story, but they do know by examining her shinbone that she was 14 years old.
Based on isotope studies of her third molar, the high nitrogen content meant Jane may have been from a high-status family or served as their maid.
Elevated nitrogen levels indicate that she ate a lot of protein, which was scarce and expensive, said Kari Bruwlheide, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian who works with Owsley.
Researchers also know that she was probably from the southern coast of England, based on a comparison of oxygen isotopes in her tooth and oxygen isotopes found in groundwater samples from the area. The water she consumed while her permanent teeth were forming during infancy helps to pinpoint where she was born.
A study of the carbon isotopes in her bones indicated she was eating a mostly European diet, which means that Jane had not been in Jamestown for long before her death, Bruwelheide said.
A Desperate Situation
According to Horn, of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Jane probably arrived at Jamestown in August of 1609 on one of six ships from England that straggled into the fort after surviving a hurricane during their crossing.
The new arrivals’ food stores were spoiled or depleted—most of their provisions were lost when the flagship Sea Venture shipwrecked during the storm—and many of them were in poor health, he said.
The Jamestown colonists were already starving when the 300 new settlers arrived, having suffered from diseases and food shortages.
Increasing demands for food from nearby Indian tribes, coupled with severe drought conditions, caused relationships with the Powhatan Indians—a powerful chiefdom that extended across much of Virginia’s coastal region—to deteriorate.
The colony’s leader, Captain John Smith, who had been wounded in an explosion, left with the fleet on its return trip to England, leaving Jamestown rudderless.
By November, the Powhatans launched a war against the English, laying siege to Jamestown and cutting the colonists off from outside help. “Conditions became increasingly desperate,” Horn said.
At first the settlers ate their horses, then their dogs and cats. Jamestown residents also ate rats, mice, and snakes, according to a firsthand account by George Percy, who became the colony’s temporary leader after John Smith left.
Percy writes that some colonists ate their boots, shoes, and any other leather they could find. Others left the fort to search for roots in the woods, but were killed by Powhatan warriors.
“Nothing Was Spared”
As the siege continued into the winter, Percy wrote in an eyewitness account: "And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpse out of graves and to eat them, and some have licked up the blood which hath fallen from their weak fellows."
According to several colonists, one man killed his pregnant wife and chopped her into pieces, which he then salted and ate for food. He was executed for murder.
"Only in the most desperate of circumstances would the English have turned to cannibalism," Horn said. He believed the accounts because he said there was no reason for Percy to write falsely about something that would reflect poorly on his leadership.
By spring of 1610, only about 60 people living at the fort had survived, according to Kelso’s calculations. How many of the dead were cannibalized is unknown, but Jane was not an isolated case, according to historical accounts.
The colony was saved that spring by the arrival of settlers who had been shipwrecked with the Sea Venture in Bermuda—they had built themselves a new boat—who brought in much-needed supplies. They were followed soon after by Lord de la Warr, Jamestown’s first governor, who brought in additional supplies—a year’s worth—and even more colonists.
Upon his arrival, De la Warr ordered a clean up of the fort. Trash, including Jane's remains, were deposited in cellars and pits throughout the settlement.
Jamestown endured and colonists kept coming. "They kept their foothold and kept the Spanish from claiming all of North America," Horn said.
"This discovery underlines the incredible challenges each colonist faced in establishing European settlements in the New World. There were scores that never lasted more than 6 to 12 months."
A public exhibition about the discovery and investigation of Jane’s remains, along with the evidence of cannibalism, her facial reconstruction, and the circumstances that led to the Starving Time will open at the Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne, on Jamestown Island, on May 3.
I'd rather be killed by the natives than starve to death and allow myself to be eaten, or eat one of my friends, in that situation.
Is it true that most readers who commented here have not read Howard Zinn's People's History of America? He has mentioned and explained much of this.
The latest entry on the Shipping News, the blog of the MarineLives project, discusses evidence of cannibalism off the Maryland Coast in early 1650, and notes a certain gender etiquette appears to have been practised (1) This may be of special interest to readers in the light of new archaeological evidence of the eating of human flesh in early colonial Jamestown, and doubts which have been voiced by historians regarding the veracity of early accounts of supposed colonial cannibalism. (2) (3)
The article compares a previously unpublished petition in the High Court of Admiralty of London by the wives of two mariners on the Virginia Merchant, with the published account by Colonel Henry Norwood of that ship’s traumatic voyage from London to Jamestown in 1649. (4) A linked wiki article hosted on MarineLives-Tools offers readers the opportunity to compare accounts and to annotate them with their further researches. (5)
The petition records the abandonment of twenty-three men and women of the Virginia merchant on Assateague Island, off the Maryland coast, in January 1650. They were already severely malnourished from a traumatic, gale buffeted voyage with inadequate and water damaged provisions. The petitioners, Priscilla Lockier and Sara Spurgeon, wives of two of the abandoned mariners, who had as yet not returned from Virginia, noted that "there were 35 seaman and above 130 passengers neere upon 200 persons in all in the said Shippe, whereof 62 22. passengers and 4 Seamen by reason of the want of provisions were starved to death before the shipp came to Virginia."
Describing the situation in extremis upon the island they go on to state that:
“At the length the rage and violence of their famine soe much increasing and being not able to eate those leaves and longer they cast lotts which of them should be shott the next day to serve for food for the rest; which was miraculously prevented by the suddaine and unexpected fall of a great tree that night which killed 2 men and a woman of their Company: which the rest of the Company left alive were forced to eate and live upon untill such time as they were by Gods providence releived by the very heathen and by them in Canoes transported over the river to the other side and soe travelled to Virginia by land where divers of them dyed as soone as they came thense, and some dyed on that Island by famine.”
Colonel Norwood’s published account corroborates the eating of human flesh, but not the story of drawing lots. Norwood was one of the party abandoned on the island, and a vital force in keeping thirteen of the nineteen (by his account) alive.
He claims credit for the suggest that they eat the flesh of the newly dead, and suggests that there was a certain etiquette, with women and men each eating bodies of their own sex.
“Of the three weak women before-mentioned, one had the envied happiness to die about this time; and it was my advice to the survivors, who were following her apace, to endeavour their own preservation on by converting, her dead carcase into food, as they did to good effect. The same counsel was embrac’d by those of our sex: the living fed upon the dead; four of our company having the happiness to end their miserable lives on Sunday night the _ day of January. Their chief distemper, ’tis true, was hunger; but it pleased God to hasten their exit by an immoderate access of cold, caused by a most terrible storm of hail and snow at north-west, on the Sunday aforesaid, which did not only dispatch those four to their long homes, but did sorely threaten all that remained alive, to perish by the same fate.” (5)
(1) http://marinelives-theshippingnews.org/blog/2013/05/18/cannibal-tales/, viewed 19/05/13
(3) Hermann, Rachel B., The "tragicall historie":Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 68, no. 1, January 201 (viewable at http://www.academia.edu/428792/The_tragicall_historie_Cannibalism_and_Abundance_in_Colonial_Jamestown, viewed 19/05/13)
(4) TNA, HCA 15/5 f.99: http://marinelives-transcript.org/scripto/scripto/?scripto_action=transcribe&scripto_doc_id=2961&scripto_doc_page_id=2912, viewed 19/05/13
(6) Colonel Norwood, A Voyage to Virginia (1649), in Tracts and Other Paper Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America From the Discovery of the Country to the Year 1776, vol. 3 (Gloucester, MA, 1963), viewable at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=J1025.xml&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1, viewed 19/05/13
This is quite an interesting article as just yesterday i read an article on the BBC news website titled "Cannibal fruit flies: Lab maggots hunt one another" which is about an interesting study on cannibalism's place in survival & evolutionary success.
Those who have the ability to turn cannibal in extreme conditions are always the winners. I wonder if any Americans today are related to (or descended from) cannibal Jamestown residents?
The first colonists landed in may, plenty of time to prepare for winter . i grew up on that stretch of the james river. it is filled with oyster beds . very low tide reveals them easily. fish abounded when i was young so i cannot imagine not one of the first settlers couldn't fish. many deer in that area. did no one know how to dry fish if nothing else?oyster stew with wild garlic what a feast. arrowroots and cat tail roots? pine needle tea very high in vitamin c. seems to me that for pioneers they picked badly who would come over first.
Poor little Jane! I can easily imagine the settlers being rather spoiled & clueless before that awful trip across the Atlantic, and too weak & frightened to forage, no choice ---she is in us all, now.
this is what i can't understand: at that time there were enough plants, meat and fish to feed several millions of native Americans. how come just a couple of hundreds of settlers starved so much that they had to eat each other?
@Mushra Rambo Says you who has never faced starvation like they did.
@Satyajit Das That's a fantastic book.
@Babz Covington 1. When relations worsened the Indian tribes killed any fort people who strayed into the wilderness to look for food.
2. These people were not hunter gatherers and most would have had an extremely limited knowledge on how to hunt & gather.
If you ARE serious, then the analogy is ridiculous. If you are NOT (serious ),
then I you're not the least bit funny!
@Oleksiy Minkin The thing is that they couldn't get out because of the hostile Native Americans. The journey was so long from the UK to the US that supplies couldn't get there in time.
@Oleksiy Minkin Because they were trapped within the fort, the natives outside the fort killed anyone who went hunting for roots (it is in the story).
Guys, thank you for your responses!
That is what confusing me: one sources says that Native Americans actually accepted those settlers, and allowed them to hunt, to fish, and to grow plants. The problem was that those settlers were just unadapted to the new reality: they were mostly from English Noble families and never did any kind of physical job in their life. Besides, instead of growing vegetables they use their land for tobacco.
Another sources said that they starved because of hostile relationships with Natives.
this is not true. The settlers had no idea about hunting farming and eatable plants. In the beginning Indians and Settlers were no enemies and there are some evidence that the Indians helped the settlers in some areas. Now we've to analyze the situation. It was probably a strong winter so they couldn't expect much help of the natives. So they had no help and quite less skills to survive. Even if they had got them, I don't suppose they would have had enough time to build up food storages for such a strong winter.
Different Native American tribes and groups of settlers had different relationships. So farther north the Plymouth colony had a better relationship with the natives than the Jamestown colony had with the Powhatan. In this case the Powhatan were keeping the colonists in their fort.
Along with a drought and inexperience with native wildlife, plants, and agricultural practices led to disaster for that first year.
Actually that is true. The cannibalism began as food supplies dwindled and became contaminated. By then, their relationship with the natives had -in fact- dissipated, they were starving, and lacked leadership. Disease and hunger led to hysteria, paranoia and political restlessness.
They grew increasingly fearful to leave the colony's fort, on account of the ever-heightened tensions with the 'savages'.
Feed the World
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
Latest From Nat Geo
Some jellyfish are known to migrate hundreds of feet in pursuit of prey. See some of our favorite jellyfish pictures in honor of Jellyfish Day.
The life cycles of these insects—from flies to maggots to beetles—can help in crime scene investigations. Caution: This video may make you squirm.