Jamestown Settlers Were Cannibals During Harsh Winter Of 1609-1610
May 2, 2013

Jamestown Settlers Were Cannibals During Harsh Winter Of 1609-1610

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

New Evidence suggests the settlers at Jamestown, Virginia in 1609-1610 resorted to cannibalism in the face of a harsh winter with a shortage of food stock. Archeologists working closely with the Smithsonian have made the discovery after careful analysis of human remains unearthed at the site in 2012.

William Kelso of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project at Preservation Virginia, and his archeological colleagues have been working at the Jamestown site since 1996, unearthing skeletal remains for analysis in an effort to gain a better understanding of the lives of the early colonial settlers in the Chesapeake.

A skull and tibia uncovered in 2012 was the first evidence that cannibalism may have actually been present during the dreadfully harsh winter of 1609-1610. The archeologists previously had uncovered the remains of dogs, cats and horses which had evident markings consistent with being used as a food source. Now with human remains on the dinner table it further establishes that the season commonly known as the “Starving Time” was especially harsh.

According to information found on the Smithsonian´s webpage titled “Written In Bone,” only 38 of the original 104 Jamestown colonists survived the first nine months of colonization in 1607. By 1609, more ships carrying immigrants and supplies had arrived to help establish the colony. But like the settlers before, disease and starvation continued along with one of the worst regional droughts in centuries. Local Indians had short supply of corn to trade and hostilities made it unsafe for colonists to hunt far beyond their settlement.

Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian´s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), has worked closely with Kelso and his team since 1996, uncovering evidence that the early settlers succumbed to starvation and disease.


In 2012 they discovered the skull and tibia of a 14-year-old English girl, dubbed “Jane,” which upon careful analysis led the team to a gruesome realization. The forensic evidence showed that the remains had signs of dismemberment and cannibalism, which were the first direct signs that slaughtering their animals was not enough to keep the colony alive.

Cannibalism has been a long-standing theory with many historians, and the new evidence pretty much puts the nail in the coffin. Owsley and his team identified several features on the remains that indicated cannibalization. They found four shallow chops on the forehead of the skull that were failed attempts to crack open the skull.

“Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain,” said Owsley in a statement.

Owsley and his team also discovered cuts and punctures on the sides and bottom of the mandible, which represented efforts to remove tissue from the throat and face with a knife.

“The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609—1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl´s body,” said 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.”

Despite the grisly finding, the team knows no more of the girl then they had before piecing together her fateful account. They do not know for sure if she was murdered or if she died of natural causes. Also, it can´t be known for sure if multiple people were involved with her dismemberment, or if it was a solo act. Still, their findings shows the first direct evidence that cannibalism may have been present in Jamestown in 1609-1610.

“Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there,” Owsley noted. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”


The new discovery backs up the account of George Percy, the president of Jamestown during the “Starving Time,” who in 1625 wrote a letter detailing the diet of the colonists during the dreadful winter season of 1609-1610.

According to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation documents, Percy wrote the following: “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce“¦as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather,” he wrote. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”

Using specialized equipment in the lab, Owsley constructed a 3D model of what the 14-year-old girl may have looked like when she was alive. “We CT scanned the bones, then replicated them as virtual 3D models and then put them together, piece by piece, assembling the skull,” Owsley explained. They digitally mirrored the fragments to fill in the missing pieces to get a clear 3D facial reconstruction, despite only having 66 percent of the skull.

They used the reconstruction, along with other data, to make the determination that the skull was in fact that of a teenage girl (based on molar development) and was of British descent.

Owsley suggests that this girl most likely arrived in the colony on one of the resupply ships in 1609. He said that an isotopic analysis of her bones suggested she had a high-protein diet, indicating she was likely the daughter of a gentleman rather than a maidservant or child of a servant.

He noted that it isn´t known who may have butchered her body, but it is likely more than one person was involved. While the skull was attacked by an amateur, marks on the shin bone indicate a more skilled butcher. It appears that the brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten. It is not known what happened to the rest of the body as there were no evident remains. As for murder, there is not enough evidence to prove that.

“I don´t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” Owsley said. “It's just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”

However, there is some other evidence that colonists were capable of murder to fulfill their hunger. Percy also wrote in 1625 that he tortured and burned alive a man who had confessed to killing and eating his pregnant wife.

“It´s fairly convincing, now that we see this one, that this wasn´t the only case,” said Owsley. “There are other examples mentioned here and there in the literature. So the only question is: Where are the rest of the bodies?”

Kelso said his team will continue to excavate the site, perhaps uncovering more evidence of cannibalism.

James Horn, head of research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a historian on the colony, said the discovery “adds a significant confirmation to what was reported to have occurred at Jamestown.” Further, it´s the only physical evidence of cannibalism of Europeans in any New World colony, although, as with Jamestown, there are written accounts of the practice in others.

“I tend to be sparing in the use of words like ℠unique.´ But I think this is one of those finds that literally is,” Horn told David Brown of the Washington Post.

The facial reconstruction of “Jane” will be on display at the Smithsonian´s NMNH in the “Written In Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake” exhibit beginning tomorrow (May 3). It will be showcased along with other artifacts of the period. The human remains will be on display at Historic Jamestown near the discovery site on Jamestown Island.