Remains confirm cannibalism at Jamestown colony

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WASHINGTON -- Scientists revealed that they have found the first solid archaeological evidence that some of the earliest American colonists at Jamestown, Va., survived harsh conditions by turning to cannibalism.

For years, there have been tales of people in the first permanent English settlement in America eating dogs, cats, rats, mice, snakes and shoe leather to stave off starvation. There were also written accounts of settlers eating their own dead, but archaeologists had been skeptical of those stories.

But now, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and archaeologists from Jamestown are announcing the discovery of the bones of a 14-year-old girl that show clear signs that she was cannibalized. Evidence indicates clumsy chops to the body and head of the girl, who appears to have already been dead at the time.

Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley said the human remains date back to a deadly winter known as the "starving time" in Jamestown from 1609 to 1610. "Historians have questioned, well did it happen or not happen?" Owsley said. "And this is very convincing evidence that it did." Owsley has been working with William Kelso, the chief archaeologist at Jamestown, since their first burial discovery in 1996.

The remains of the 14-year-old girl, named "Jane" by researchers, were discovered in summer 2012 and mark the fourth set of human remains found at Jamestown outside of graves.The vice president of research at nearby Colonial Williamsburg, which oversees the original Jamestown site, said visitors will have a fuller view of a terrible time in American history. "I think we are better served by understanding history, warts and all, because I think it gives us a better understanding of who we are as a people," James Horn said.

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Owsley examined the girl's remains and how the body had been dismembered, including chops to the head. The girl was likely already dead at the time.

But the signs of cannibalism were clear to Owsley immediately. "This does represent a clear case of dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption," he said.

It was the work of someone not skilled at butchering, Owsley said, indicating a sense of desperation. The bones show a bizarre attempt to open the skull, he said. Animal brains and facial tissue were desirable meat in the 17th century.

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