Starving Virginia settlers turned to cannibalism in 1609: study

Wed May 1, 2013 7:11pm EDT
 
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By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Settlers at Virginia's Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported on Wednesday.

This is the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas, according to the Washington-based museum and research complex.

A recent excavation at the historic site revealed not just the remains of dogs, cats and horses eaten by settlers during the cold "Starving Time" of that year, but also the bones of a girl known to researchers simply as "Jane."

Jane probably was part of a relatively prosperous household, possibly a gentleman's daughter or maidservant, said Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, who analyzed her bones after they were found by Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group.

Her back molars had not yet erupted, putting her age around 14 years, and there was a lot of nitrogen in her bones, indicating she ate a meat-rich English diet, Owsley said in a telephone interview.

It is not known whether Jane was killed or died of natural causes. The Smithsonian said there is no evidence of murder.

After her death, in a year when many Jamestown colonists starved, Jane's body was hacked apart by a butcher or butchers who barely knew what they were doing. She may have been chosen because others in her household were already dead and there was no one to bury her, Owsley said.

UNSKILLED CHOPPING   Continued...

 
Several sharp cuts to the bottom of a mandible excavated in James Fort, Jamestown, Virginia at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project are pictured in this December 2012 handout photo provided by the Smithsonian Institute on May 1, 2013. Settlers at Virginia's Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported on May 1, 2013. REUTERS/Donald Hurlbert/Smithsonian Institute/Handout