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Girl’s bones back up legends of cannibalism at Jamestown

Settlers told of digging up bodies for food, but few wanted to believe

By Matt Pearce
Los Angeles Times
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The early American settlers called it “the starving time,” and accounts of the winter of 1609-1610 were so ghastly that scholars weren’t sure whether the stories were true.

George Percy, president of the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, wrote that settlers ate horses, then cats and dogs, then boots and bits of leather, and, finally, one another.

“One of our colony murdered his wife, ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the river, and after chopped the mother in pieces and salted her for his food,” wrote Percy, who then ordered the man executed.

“Now whether she was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d (barbecued), I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of,” added the famed settler John Smith. “This was that time, which still to this day we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured.”

Until now. Researchers said Wednesday that they have discovered the first forensic proof that cannibalism happened at Jamestown during one of its darkest periods.

The announcement was presented by Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; chief archaeologist William Kelso from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project at Preservation Virginia; and historian James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg.

The butchering of ‘Jane’

The biggest name involved with the announcement was “Jane,” the nickname given to the remains of a 14-year-old girl found last year in settlement trash from the starving period.

Archaeologists did not find much of Jane – just part of her skull and part of her leg, only 10 percent of her body – but said those remains showed that someone tried to eat her, apparently after she had died of an undetermined cause.

Someone made four small chops to Jane’s forehead before an ax or cleaver broke open the back of her skull, the researchers said. There were also small knife cuts on her jaw and cheek.

“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,” Owsley said in the announcement. “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.”

Tests showed that Jane had a diet of wheat and meat, so she was probably the daughter of a gentleman. Researchers believe she arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, mere months before the worst of the colonists’ starvation. That winter, 80 percent of the settlers died.

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