Cannibalism in Jamestown?




An announcement made May 1, confirmed the presence of survival cannibalism in the English colony, Jamestown, Virginia, during the 1600’s.

In 2012, researchers found a portion of human skull and tibia in the trash deposit of a cellar built in 1607. Using these remains, they were able to conduct a forensic analysis in order to find that the remains had belonged to a victim of survival cannibalism.

The announcement was made in conjunction by Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, William Kelso of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and James Horn of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Four chop marks marred the skull’s forehead, indicating an attempt to split the skull. Because of the close proximity of the marks, the researchers were able to tell that the victim had already been dead by the time they were inflicted.

The back of the skull appears to have been cracked open by a cleaver blade that would have been common at the time, after a series of deep, forceful chops. Multiple cuts, puncture wounds and saw marks littered the mandible. Owsley believes these would have been made with a knife in order to remove throat tissue and the tongue.

The tibia also appears to have been chopped, but in a much more traditional way. Speculations have been made that a butcher may have been responsible for these marks.

According to Owsley, “The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains. Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption.”

The girl had been 14 years old at the time of her death, which they could tell by studying her tibia. She has been nicknamed “Jane,” as her real identity is unknown. However, isotope analysis was performed on her third molar and tibia, and, some information is known about who she may have been.

According to the studies, she may have been from a high-class family or a maid for one, as she had high levels of nitrogen, and had eaten an excess of protein. According to Kari Bruwlheide of the Smithsonian, meat would have been expensive and hard to find at this time.

Researchers were also able to tell that she was originally from the southern coast of England, and she had spent the majority of her life eating a European diet. The oxygen isotopes in her tooth matched the oxygen isotopes of the groundwater in southern England, and her diet could be determined through the carbon isotopes in her bones.

Bruwlheide came to the conclusion that Jane had not been in Jamestown long before her death. Only 10 percent of Jane’s body has been recovered.

According to James Horn, the colonists may have resorted to survival cannibalism because of the difficulties they experienced in 1609.

During the summer, a large fleet carrying provisions and 500 settlers was scheduled to reach Jamestown. However, the fleet was scattered due to a hurricane. When a portion of the fleet finally arrived, most of the food had spoiled and many of the passengers were ill.

“On one of those ships was Jane,” said Horn.

At the same time, the colonists already in Jamestown were experiencing food shortages and diseases, and the Powhatan Indians had declared war on the colonists. George Percy, who was the president of Jamestown in 1609, left records depicting how any colonist who left Jamestown in order to collect roots to eat was killed by the Powhatan Indians.

Percy’s records show that the colonists began to eat horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice and snakes. He also wrote that colonists began to eat their boots and shoes.  According to Horn, “Only in the most desperate of circumstances would the English have turned to cannibalism.”

In May of 1610, the remaining ships that had been sent off course by the hurricane managed to arrive.

William Kelso calculated that only about 60 colonists would have survived until the spring of 1610.

Jane’s skeletal remains are currently on display at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne.


Email Rebecca at: