Cannibalism in Jamestown Colony

In the 17th century, a group of English settlers founded Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas. However, the Virginia settlement has a dark history that involves famine, disease, and most shocking of all, cannibalism. In 2012, archaeologists found the remains of a young, cannibalized girl so they asked forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley to figure out who she was and what exactly happened to her.

Located in Virginia, the colony was founded in 1607 by 104 settlers eager for fortune and adventure. However, life in Jamestown wasn’t all perfection. In fact, it was pretty horrible, especially during the period known as the Starving Time.

The Jamestown settlers showed up in the New World just in time for one of the worst droughts in Virginia’s history. They also weren’t very good farmers, and in less than a year, 66 of the original colonists were dead, victims of sickness and starvation. New recruits from England occasionally showed up, but things kept getting worse. As the winter of 1609 rolled around, Jamestown’s relationship with the local Native American tribes had soured so the settlers couldn’t expect any free handouts. Even worse, a ship that was supposed to bring supplies had gotten lost at sea. Desperate, people started eating their livestock. Next, they went after the pets and pests. After folk finished the cats and rats, they boiled any leather they could find. People were actually eating their own shoes. But things got worse. Much worse.

George Percy was the president of Jamestown in 1609, and in 1625, he wrote a letter detailing the horrors of the Starving Time. According to Percy, the colonists were resorting to vampirism. In his own words, “Some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” There are at least five accounts of the Jamestown settlers resorting to cannibalism, including one gory tale related in Percy’s letter. He wrote about how he executed a criminal who allegedly salted and ate his pregnant wife. However, historians have been very skeptical of these outrageous claims. Many researchers believed the stories were just fabrications meant to destroy the Virginia Company’s reputation. However, their opinions changed in 2012.

Archaeologists from Preservation Virginia were excavating James Fort when they came across a pit full of animal bones. However, after digging a bit deeper, they made a shocking discovery. Under the skeletons of dogs and horses, they found the remains of a human skull and a shinbone. After closer examination, they realized the bones were covered in cut marks. It looked like some unlucky immigrant had ended up on the menu. To solve the mystery of the 400-year-old cannibal, archaeologists called in Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who’s traveled the world examining skeletons. Even though only 66 percent of the skull remained, Owsley reconstructed the victim’s head and face using 3-D models. He determined the deliciously departed was a 14-year-old English girl who investigators nicknamed “Jane.” But who was Jane exactly, and who killed her?

After an isotope analysis, Owsley deduced that Jane was probably one of Jamestown’s elites, perhaps the child of a wealthy gentleman. How did he come to that conclusion? Jane’s bones revealed a diet high in protein, indicating she had access to food that most colonists didn’t. But what about the person who made a meal out of her? Well, Owsley believes Jane was eaten by at least two cannibals. The first suspect sliced up Jane’s face. Owsley found four chop marks on the forehead, and four on the back of the skull, one of which cracked her skull. The cannibal probably used a cleaver, and he was definitely planning on eating her brain. Other marks around the jaw show that he was also going after the tongue and cheeks. However, it seems whoever operated on Jane’s face might’ve been a tad nervous about eating human flesh. Owsley described his work as tentative and hesitant. Contrast that to the guy who was working on the leg. His quick cuts indicated he had a little more butchering experience.

However, Owsley doesn’t think this was the work of some murderous tag team. The cuts on Jane’s head were very close together, very exact. If she’d been alive while she was being carved up for dinner, the marks would be a little more erratic, not so precise. She would have probably struggled. The people who ate Jane weren’t Jacobean Hannibal Lecters. They were starving settlers on the verge of death, so insane with hunger they decided to break humanity’s greatest taboo. Think about that the next time you watch Pocahontas.


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