Ongoing excavations at Jamestown, VA, the first permanent English settlement in America, have revealed grisly evidence that within months of establishing the outpost, its desperate inhabitants had resorted to dismembering and eating a child.
Contemporary written sources from Jamestown refer to the winter of 1609-1610 as the ‘Starving Time’, a devastating period when around 80% of the original 104 settlers died. Previous archaeological work at the fort had uncovered butchered cat, dog, and horse bones to bear witness to this period. The discovery of the partial remains of a human child amongst this refuse now suggests that the colonists were driven to go much further in their quest for survival, however.
Comprising a fragmentary skull and tibia, the bones were found in a rubbish heap, among discarded rubble and animal remains. Thought to have belonged to a 14-year-old girl, the bones show tell-tale marks indicating that she had been cannibalised.
Four shallow chops to the forehead represent a failed first attempt to open the skull, Smithsonian Institute forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley says. This was followed by a series of deep, forceful chops to the back of the head, using a small hatchet or cleaver, of which the final stroke split the cranium open. Sharp cuts and punctures marking the sides and bottom of the mandible have also been identified, reflecting efforts to remove tissue from the face and throat using 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 Douglas. ‘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.’
As the girl’s remains represent just 10% of her skeleton, it has not been possible to establish her cause of death – though she may have been one of the first settlers to die from starvation, before being eaten by her fellow colonists.
Dubbed ‘Jane’ by the research team, her face has been digitally reconstructed using CT scans of her skull. This reconstruction will be on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History from 3 May, as part of their permanent exhibition: Written in Bone’: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake.