New archaeological evidence and forensic analysis reveals that a 14-year-old girl was cannibalized in desperation
The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable. A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the “Starving Time.” But a few other newly discovered bones in particular, though, tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.
Detail of cut marks found on the girl’s jaw, or lower mandible in a stereo-microscopic photo.
(Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert)
“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” says Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones after they were found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia. “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.”
Much is still unknown about the circumstances of this grisly meal: Who exactly the girl researchers are calling "Jane" was, whether she was murdered or died of natural causes, whether multiple people participated in the butchering or it was a solo act. But as Owsley revealed along with lead archaeologist William Kelso today at a press conference at the National Museum of Natural History, we now have the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas. “Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there,” Owsley says. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it’s clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”
It’s long been speculated that the harsh conditions faced by the colonists of Jamestown might have made them desperate enough to eat other humans—and perhaps even commit murder to do so. The colony was founded in 1607 by 104 settlers aboard three ships, the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed, but only 38 survived the first nine months of life in Jamestown, with most succumbing to starvation and disease (some researchers speculate that drinking water poisoned by arsenic and human waste also played a role). Because of difficulties in growing crops—they arrived in the midst of one of the worst regional droughts in centuries and many settlers were unused to hard agricultural labor—the survivors remained dependent on supplies brought by subsequent missions, as well as trade with Native Americans.
By the winter of 1609, extreme drought, hostile relations with members of the local Powhatan Confederacy and the fact that a supply ship was lost at sea put the colonists in a truly desperate position. Sixteen years later, in 1625, George Percy, who had been president of Jamestown during the Starving Time, wrote a letter describing the colonists’ diet during that terrible winter. “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather,” he wrote. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”
Despite this and other textual references to cannibalism, though, there had never been hard physical evidence that it had occurred—until now. Kelso’s team discovered the girl’s remains during the summer of 2012. "We found a deposit of refuse that contained butchered horse and dog bones. That was only done in times of extreme hunger. As we excavated, we found human teeth and then a partial human skull," says Kelso.
Kelso brought them to Owsley for a battery of forensic tests, including microscopic and isotope analysis. “We CT scanned the bones, then replicated them as virtual 3D models and then put them together, piece by piece, assembling the skull,” Owsley says. Digitally mirroring the fragments to fill in the missing gaps allowed the team to make a 3D facial reconstruction despite having just 66 percent of the skull.
The young girl’s features were reconstructed based on the forensic evidence gathered at Jamestown. (Studio EIS / Don Hurlbert)
The researchers used this reconstruction, along with the other data, to determine the specimen was a female, roughly 14 years old (based on the development of her molars) and of British ancestry. Owsley says the cut marks on the jaw, face and forehead of the skull, along with those on the shinbone, are telltale signs of cannibalism. "The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption. These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used," says Owsley. "The person that was doing this was not experienced and did not know how to butcher an animal. Instead, we see hesitancy, trial, tentativeness and a total lack of experience."
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