Cannibalism In Jamestown: Why Did Early Jamestown Settlers Resort To Eating Human Flesh?

By Philip Ross on May 1, 2013 4:27 PM EDT

cannibalism in america
An archaeological dig site at Jamestown Historical National Park. Jamestown was the first English settlement in the Americas, and new evidence from archaeological sites indicate that life in the U.S. colony was marked by cannibalism. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Evidence from an archaeological dig in Virginia's historic Jamestown indicates that early colonial settlers may have resorted to cannibalism to survive a particularly harsh winter.

AP reports that archaeologists unearthed the skull of a 14-year-old girl that had laceration marks on it, suggesting that the girl's flesh and brain were taken out. The most likely reason for the girl's mutilation, according to scientists studying the remains, is that she was cannibalized.

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According to the New York Times, the girl's bones were found last summer in an early American garbage pit in Jamestown that also contained canine and horse bones. The girl's bones were discovered by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group. Led by William Kelso, the excavation of the area began in 1994.

Historians were skeptical at first at the idea of early American colonists resorting to cannibalism, but the discovery has changed their minds.

Why did early Jamestown, Va., settlers resort to eating each other?

Harsh Circumstances In First American Colony

Jamestown, established on May 14, 1607, was the first English settlement in the Americas. Life during the colony's early years was rough; a drought, the worst in 800 years, brought severe famine to the 6,000 residents of Jamestown between 1607 and 1625.

Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley told AP that the human remains discovered at the trash pit site date back to the early 17th century when a particularly crippling winter claimed hundreds of early settlers' lives. He also stated that there is no doubt cannibalism took place there, as indicated by the skull found at the site.

"This does represent a clear case of dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption," he said. Owsley pointed out that the marks on the skull indicated a sense of desperation and were the work of someone not familiar with proper butchering techniques.

'We Are Starved, We Are Starved'

English explorer and early Colonial Governor of Virginia George Percy described the period in the nascent American colony's history as one marked by hunger and suffering.

"Now all of us at James Town, beginning to feel that sharp prick of hunger which no man truly describe but he which has tasted the bitterness thereof, a world of miseries ensued," he wrote in an account of the colony's early days he titled "A True Relation."

Percy went on to describe how out of the 500 men who initially settled Jamestown, only about 60 survived the famine; most of them either starved or died during conflict with the indigenous tribes (the "savages").

"Those which were living were so meager and lean that it was lamentable to behold them, for many, through extreme hunger, have run out of their naked beds, being so lean that they looked like anomalies, crying out 'we are starved, we are starved'; others going to bed as we imagined in health were found dead the next morning," Percy noted in his records.

AP reports that the colony's most famous leader, John Smith, also documented the harsh conditions of life in early-17th century Jamestown.

"One amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed, as he well deserved," Smith wrote. "Now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado'd (barbecued), I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of."

Not A Fairy Tale Ending

This account of Jamestown deviates greatly from the Disney version of events in Jamestown, the one where Pocahontas, the Virginia Indian who was famously caught canoodling with Smith, and the rest of the settlers lived happily ever after and never ate each other.

The bones of the 14-year-old girl will be put on display as a reminder that life in early American colonies was incredibly brutal -- even downright barbaric.

Read more from iScience Times:

Fishermen Eat Friend: Olga Kurochkin's Husband Killed As Friends Turn To Cannibalism To Stay Alive

Medieval Knight Found: How Did Scottish Archaeologists Find Skeleton Underneath Parking Lot?

Korea Cannibalism: Famine Drives Starving North Koreans To Eat Children

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