Printer Friendly

Cannibalism in colonial America: girl's remains shed light on Jamestown's gruesome 'starving time'.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Hunger turned horrifying among Colonial-era residents of Virginia's Jamestown settlement. An analysis of a partial skull from a teenage girl unearthed last summer indicates that her body was cannibalized after she died, scientists reported May 1 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

This unfortunate girl, dubbed Jane by the team that studied her remains, confirms several colonists' written accounts of last-ditch cannibalism at Jamestown's walled fort during the winter of 1609 to 1610. Historians refer to those months as Jamestown's "starving time," when sickness, starvation and a siege by neighboring Powhatan Indians nearly wiped out the settlement.

Jane represents the only skeletal evidence of cannibalism in the Americas during colonial times. "We don't think Jane was alone in being cannibalized at Jamestown," said historian James Horn of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Jane's partial skull and right shin bone were excavated in a structure's cellar by a team led by William Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project. The cellar had become a refuse pit by 1610. Aside from Jane's remains, researchers found military equipment, pots, seashells and the remains of horses, dogs and other animals.

After observing that Jane's skull had probably been chopped in two, Kelso called in a group led by Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley to analyze the girl's remains.

Closely spaced cuts in Jane's forehead could have been made only on a motionless body, so it's likely that the young girl died before the cuts were made, Owsley said. After that failed attempt to open Jane's skull, her body was positioned face down. A person wielding a small axe or cleaver then split her skull in half with four forceful chops.

Cuts and puncture marks on the left side of the cranium and the lower jaw resulted from someone using a knife in a sawing motion to remove the brain and tissue from the face and throat, including the tongue.

"The person who did this was very hesitant and had no experience at this type of activity," Owsley said.

Jane's shin bone was chopped off near the knee joint, in a cut similar to a traditional butchery technique, he added. The precision of that cut suggests that a more competent person may have dismembered the body's legs, Owsley said, while someone less experienced focused more haphazardly on the head.

Too little of Jane's skeleton was found to test for other clues to cannibalism, such as polished areas that form on bones that have been boiled in pots and limb bones broken open to obtain marrow.

Settlers spent the "starving time" of 1609-10 in James Fort, in the Virginia colony, shown under construction in the illustration below.

The cause of Jane's death can't be determined from her remains, which represent about 10 percent of her complete skeleton.

Jane probably reached Jamestown in 1609 on one of six storm-damaged ships that had been part of a larger fleet carrying supplies and settlers from England, Horn said. Most of the desperately needed food had spoiled on board. Settlers' attempts to get food from the Powhatan led the tribe to attack and surround the Jamestown fort. As winter set in, the settlers became desperate. They ate horses, dogs, rats, snakes and even boiled boots, according to written accounts. As a last resort, human corpses were consumed.

Only 60 of 300 settlers survived that brutal winter. More colonists had crossed the ocean to Jamestown by spring.

Jane now returns from that tumultuous time, thanks to a facial reconstruction led by Owsley. CT images helped researchers assemble a 3-D model of the girl's skull. A group of sculptors and artists then collaborated with the scientists to create a likeness of Jane. Tooth development and the growth stage of a partial knee joint put Jane's age at about 14 years.

The chemical composition of Jane's recovered bones reflects a European diet of mainly wheat and meat. Based on that evidence and the depth of the archaeological layer in which her partial remains were found, researchers suspect that Jane arrived in Jamestown in August 1509. If so, she reached the settlement just a few months before the worst stretch of "starving time."

Researchers plan to scrutinize DNA samples taken from Jane's bones, though Owsley said it's improbable that investigators will be able to identify living genetic relatives of the girl.

Caption: A facial reconstruction based on a skull (inset) found in Jamestown, Va., depicts a girl whose remains were eaten. The skull bears linear marks made in a failed attempt to open it.

Caption: Settlers spent the "starving time" of 1609-10 in James Fort, in the Virginia colony, shown under construction in the illustration below.


Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
COPYRIGHT 2013 Society for Science and the Public
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:STORY ONE
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1U5VA
Date:Jun 1, 2013
Previous Article:Mystery solved: eye on the ball.
Next Article:Back story: Jane's origins.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters