Evidence Indicates Early Jamestown Settlers Resorted To Cannibalism
Newly discovered evidence seems to indicate that the settlers at Jamestown, the first successful British settlement in North America, faced such severe hardship in the early years that they resorted to cannibalism:
Archaeologists excavating a trash pit at the Jamestown colony site in Virginia have found the first physical evidence of cannibalism among the desperate population, corroborating written accounts left behind by witnesses. Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl show that her flesh and brain were removed, presumably to be eaten by the starving colonists during the harsh winter of 1609.
The remains were excavated by archaeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The skull bears tentative cuts to the forehead, followed by four strikes to the back of the head, one of which split the skull open, according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, where the find was reported Wednesday.
It is unclear how the girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered. According to a letter written in 1625 by George Percy, president of Jamestown during the starvation period, the famine was so intense “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.” Five other historical accounts refer to cannibalism during the Jamestown siege.
The girl’s remains were discovered last summer in a refuse dump containing horse and dog bones. From the state of her molars, she is judged to have been 14 years old. Isotopes in her bones indicate that she had eaten a high-protein diet, so she was probably not a maidservant but the daughter of a gentleman.
Dr. Owsley said in an interview that he could tell she was English because of his familiarity with English skeletal remains of the 17th century and from scientific tests. The ratio of oxygen isotopes in her bones indicated that she had grown up in the southern coastal regions of England, Dr. Owsley said, and the carbon isotopes pointed to a diet that included English rye and barley.
James Horn, a historian with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said at a news conference on Wednesday that the young woman probably had arrived on one of the six surviving ships from a supply fleet that sailed from Plymouth, England, in early June of 1609. A week short of its destination, the fleet was scattered by a hurricane. The flagship, named the Sea Venture, which carried the expedition’s leaders, was driven onto reefs at Bermuda, an event that became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” Dr. Horn said.
In mid-August, six of the ships eventually reached Jamestown. But their arrival, with little food and many extra mouths, did not bring relief or comfort. The settlers’ insistent demands for food antagonized the Powhatan Indians, who at first had welcomed and provisioned them. In October or early November, with about 300 colonists crowded into the narrow confines of the James fort, the Powhatans launched a full-scale attack and siege, cutting off any hope of outside relief.
People began eating leather from their clothes and boots and killing their horses, cats and dogs. Those who ventured into the woods in search of roots were killed by Indians. “Only in the most desperate of circumstances would the English have turned to cannibalism,” Dr. Horn said.
The colony was saved in May 1610 by the arrival of the settlers who had been marooned in Bermuda. They found the 60 survivors as thin as skeletons. In June 1610, another relief fleet arrived, commanded by Lord De La Warr, who would later lend his name to the state of Delaware. De La Warr’s men swept the grisly remains of the siege — dog and horse bones and those of at least one person — into the refuse pile that Dr. Kelso and his colleagues have just begun to excavate.
Had these relief forces not arrived when they did, it’s likely that Jamestown would have slipped into the mists of history along with its predecessor the ,Roanoke Colony and history would likely have been very different.