Starvation Cannibalism at Jamestown

Frontal bone of the Jamestown girl, via Smithsonian / Don Hurlbert

Frontal bone of the Jamestown girl, via Smithsonian / Don Hurlbert

If you’ve read any news in the past day, you’ve seen reports regarding cannibalism in colonial Jamestown. It was known prior that the colonists had undergone a number of starvation years where they were forced to eat foods that they wouldn’t normally. The trash pits from the sites hold the remains of animals who aren’t normally butchered, including horses, cats, dogs, rats and snakes. Burials from this period are not given the complete funerary treatment likely due to the high number of deaths, and the skeletons show evidence of nutritional hardship and early death. The colony was founded in 1607 and by 1608 only 38 remained, the others succumbing to starvation and disease. The following winter their supply ship didn’t arrive, and they faced the harshest winter yet. This is when cannibalism is thought to have occurred.

In 1625, George Percy, the president of Jamestown during this starvation period, wrote a letter describing this period. He wrote “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather… And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, 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. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”

Archaeologist William Kelso recovered the remains of a 14 year old English girl in 2012 from the Jamestown site. Her remains were found in a trash pit along with horse and dog bones that had been clearly butchered. Only 66% of the skull was recovered and some other bones including a tibia. There is no evidence for cause of death and all cut-marks were made post-mortem. The evidence of cannibalism consists of: four shallow cuts along the frontal bone, seven shallow cuts along the lower mandible, deeper cuts along the temporal, the cranium had been split at the back, and there were marks along the tibia. From the manner of the cut-marks, it was determined by Douglas Owsley that the cuts had been made by at least two different individuals- one experienced in butchering and one who was not. The locations of the marks suggests that they had removed the girl’s brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles. They posit that the girl was likely a servant on one of the re-supply ships who died of natural causes, but was then butchered due to the starving conditions (Stromberg 2013).

Remains of the Jamestown girl, via Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert

Remains of the Jamestown girl, via Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert

Determining cannibalism is something that cannot be done lightly, especially when we are talking about our own ancestors and the colonists of our nation. Jones, Walsh-Haney and Quinn (2012) discussed six criteria for determining cannibalism: deliberate bone breakage, presence of human tooth marks, cut-marks, evidences of cooking (pot marks and change in bone color), abrasions caused by anvils, or crushing of vertebrae to extract fat and marrow from the vertebral bodies. To determine if its for nutrition the bones are compared against butchery cut-marks, long bone breakage and discard patterns that are known for animal food sources. Adding to this, Brown (2011) argues it is important to also note the historical circumstances, understand the bias of historical accounts, and use as much contextual information as possible. She also notes that the problem with interpreting cannibalism is that it is highly sensational and very individual, so cases cannot be easily compared.

Was there cannibalism at Jamestown? There are the accounts of Percy from 1625, who argues that there were multiple accounts of cannibalism due to this starving period. His most famous account is about the trial of a man who killed, salted and ate his wife who had been pregnant. His full account of what occurred during this period is found online at George Percy’s A Trewe Relacyon. From the Virginia General Assembly came an account: “One man out of the misery he endured, killing his wife powdered her up to eat her, for which he was burned. Many besides fed on the Corpses of dead men, and one who had gotten unsatiable, out of custom to that food could not be restrained, until such time as he was executed for it”. Montgomery (2007) found at least a half dozen accounts of cannibalism in this early colonial period around Jamestown. The bounty of this textual evidence would seem to support that cannibalism did indeed occur.

Was this girl from Jamestown cannibalized? Her bones have cut-marks that are similar to butchery marks of animals, and are located in areas that would have allowed them to gain access to meat. There is evidence of the cranium being split open, and all the damage was done after death. As far as the accounts we have access to state, there isn’t evidence of teeth marks or pot marks from boiling, so we have partial criteria for cannibalism based on Jones, Walsh-Haney and Quinn (2012). Contextual evidence adds to the argument since the remains were found in a trash pit with other butchered animal bones rather than in a grave. Further, the unprofessional cutmarks along the skull suggest desperation rather than another cause. All this evidence points to a highly likely yes, this female may have been cannibalized, but it was done after death.

What does this tell us about our past? It does not mean that our colonists were in any way deviants, but rather points to their desperation and need. The more we learn about this early period of American history, the more we discover that it was extremely difficult. This evidence adds to our understanding of just how much they struggled and did all they could to survive and begin our nation. Survival anthropophagy has occurred throughout history: the Donner Party in 1846, the Mignotte ship in 1886, and the plane crash of the rugby team in the Andes in 1972. Will this finding at Jamestown shift our perception of this earlier colonial period? Yes, but it will be likely viewed as much harsher conditions than we previously thought instead of being viewed as a period of deviant behavior.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgS. Jones, H. Walsh-Haney, & R. Quinn (2012). Kana Tamata or Feasts of Men: An Interdisciplinary Approach for Identifying Cannibalism in Prehistoric Fiji International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

Stromberg 2013. Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism. Smithsonian Magazine.

Brown 2011. Cannibalism. These Bones of Mine.

Montgomery 2007. “Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of”Colonial Williamsburg.

10 responses to “Starvation Cannibalism at Jamestown

  1. Thank you for the article. Today also written about the Polish website dedicated to archeology. Unfortunately, there article is available only to individuals who have paid a subscription. I am happy that you wrote about it. I’m taking up your text for translation :). Sorry for spelling errors. I speak English poorly 🙂

  2. Thank you, I actually saw the report yesterday and had to read. There’s just something about knowing the founders of your country were cannibals that makes you feel like your part of the rest of the world.

  3. Pingback: History from the Web·

  4. Pingback: Best Mortuary Archaeology Finds of 2013 | Bones Don't Lie·

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