Whoa: Early American Settlers Ate Each Other

New archeological and forensic anthropological evidence shows that early English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, dined on the other-other white meat for survival.

The winter of 1609-1610 was a pretty horrible time to be a resident of Jamestown, the early English settlement in what is now coastal Virginia. How horrible? Aside from the rampant disease, the starvation, and attacks by surrounding native tribes, people were also EATING EACH OTHER.

So confirms new forensic evidence found at the Jamestown settlement site. Written accounts of the so-called Starving Time claimed that Jamestown settlers resorted to cannibalism to survive, but this is the first forensic corroboration of it. Scientists working with Bill Kelso, director of archeology for the Jamestown Recovery project, uncovered partial human remains — a mutilated skull and a disarticulated leg — in a midden heap mingled among the butchered remains of horses and dogs.

Suspicious markings on the bones suggested that this body had also been butchered. Anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution, conducted isotopic tests on the bones, revealing that the skull and leg belonged to an English girl, and the bones’ physical characteristics showed that she was about 14 years old when she died. A variety of tool marks in the bone show someone, first tentatively and then forcefully, trying to deflesh her skull. A sharp puncture through the left temple and subsequent cracking show that someone eventually worked up the nerve or strength to pry her skull open. Finer knife marks along the cheekbone and jawline suggest that someone purposefully cut flesh off of the skull.

Owsley and colleagues compared these marks to those from other known cases of human cannibalism and found remarkable similarities–enough to conclude that this 14-year-old girl, who the scientists have dubbed “Jane,” was cannibalized by other colonists after her death of (presumably) natural causes–a desperate, last-ditch effort to save the rest of the settlement from extinction.