Archaeologists prove cannibalism among the First Families of Virginia

science | May 01, 2013 | By Martin Barillas

Many Americans proudly claim descent from the rugged first English colonists of Virginia, who at Jamestown, Williamsburg, and along the James River, founded some of the first European settlements in what would eventually become the United States. Many of them were Englishmen who were fleeing the fratricidal war between Cavaliers and Roundheads during the early 1600s. Among those who could claim descent from these was Robert E. Lee, the very prototype of a Virginia gentleman who would lead the armies of the Confederacy against the United States during the Civil War.

 
The earliest settlers came to what became known as Jamestown, taking as its namesake the king of England. It was during the winter of 1609-1610 that the colonists were to endure what they called the “starving time”: a famine in which they were surrounded by unfriendly natives led by the warrior chieftain Powhatan. Jamestown was England’s first permanent settlement.
 
Revelations have emerged from archaeological excavations undertaken at Jamestown by Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia, show just how desperate the early English colonists were during that fateful winter. Forensic anthropologists, who examine human remains in order to devise theories about diet, occupation, and the cause of death, have confirmed that the ill-fated colonists engaged in cannibalism in order to survive their ordeal. This appears to be the first scientifically-proven instance of survival cannibalism known for the colonies that would become the United States. Experts in forensic anthropology are also called upon by modern law enforcement to offer clues, for example, about the identity of murder victims.
 
 
 "Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the location of the discovery, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones immediately made us realize this finding was unusual," said archaeologist Bill Kelso of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. "We approached the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History for further research because of their proven understanding of the contextual history in this part of Virginia." While there had been previous documentary evidence concerning cannibalism in the English colonies, this is the first physical proof of the macabre practice.
 
Douglas Owsley, who leads the physical anthropology efforts at the Smithsonian, identified blows to the forehead and back of the skull of the remains of a 14-year-old girl. Chops to the skull,  along with knife cuts on the jaw and cheek, indicated removal of the flesh by the famished settlers. The left side of the girl’s head showed evidence that it had been punctured and pried apart. According to the excavators, this is physical evidence of survival cannibalism. The types of blows evidenced on the skull showed that the girl had been carved up post-mortem.
 
Owsley used the remains to reach a determination about the sex, age, ancestry, and status of the girl who yield up her flesh to starving fellow settlers. According to a news release, the shape of the skull and size of the tibia indicate the remains are female, while the development of the molars and the growth stage of the joint below the knee indicate that she was about 14 years old. Isotopic testing found that the girl had consumed a European diet of wheat and meat, while oxygen levels and skull shape showed  her country of origin.
 
While DNA samples have been saved for future examination by scientists, for now the girl remains unidentified. Researchers have dubbed her “Jane”, but there is little hope of finding living relatives. Researchers believe that she arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, just a scant few months before starvation set in. 
 
Jim Horn of Colonial Williamsburg said, "The 'starving time' was brought about by a trifecta of disasters: disease, a serious shortage of provisions, and a full scale siege by the Powhatans that cut off Jamestown from outside relief."  He added, "Survival cannibalism was a last resort; a desperate means of prolonging life at a time when the settlement teetered on the brink of extinction."
 
An exhibition opens on May 3 at The Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne to tell the story of the hapless "Jane" and the survival of Jamestown.


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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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