Cannibalism In Historic North America Proved: Practice Of ‘Survival Cannibalism’ In 17th Century Famine-Hit Jamestown Confirmed In First Scientific Study

By Gopi Chandra Kharel on May 2, 2013 2:21 AM EDT

Cannibalism
Four shallow chops to an incomplete skull excavated in James Fort, Jamestown, Virginia at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project are pictured in this August 2012 handout photo provided by the Smithsonian Institute on May 1, 2013. Settlers at Virginia's Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported on May 1, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

In what has been referred to as the first scientifically-proven explanation, it has been revealed that the practice of survival cannibalism were prevalent during 17th century North America.

Archaeologists digging up a site of a pit at Jamestown, Virginia, have found the first physical evidence of the horrific practice among the hunger-hit population.  Careful study of the remains of a 14-year-old girl they unearthed from the site reveals that she was dug up from her grave and eaten.

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The remains of the girl whom they have named as "Jane" were excavated by a team of archaeologist led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a non-profit organization and was studied by Douglas Owsley, an anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

The findings date back to the winter of 1609-1610, a period which has been often referred to as the "Starving time" at Jamestown marked by a desperate battle for survival owing to sickness, starvation and Indian attacks. While written accounts of Cannibalism in the colonized America have been long studied, the case of Jane throws some gripping light on the scientific understanding of the trend that has now been proven.

"Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the location of the discovery, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones immediately made us realize this finding was unusual," said Dr. Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project who, according to a release, has been overseeing the excavation at Jamestown.

"We approached the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History for further research because of their proven understanding of the contextual history in this part of Virginia," he added.

 Tentative chops were identified in the "forehead" of the skull followed by an attempt at the back of the cranium to open the head. There were knife cuts on the jaw and cheeks that indicated that the girl's flesh from the face was removed. Other markings also suggested that left side of the head was punctured and pried apart - all fascinating evidences indicating the practice of survival cannibalism.

Further probe into the unearthed remains also allowed anthropologists to determine that the subject was a female indicated by the shape of the skull and size of the tibia. Deeper look into her molar development and growth of joint below the knee indicated that she was about 14 years old. Isotopic testing revealed that she had consumed a European diet of wheat and meat, while shape of skull and oxygen levels reiterated her country of origin.

It is not very clear how the girl died, but the latest study suggests that she was most certainly dead and buried before her remains were excavated and butchered before being eaten. According to a letter written by George Percy, president of Jamestown in 1625 and quoted by the New York Times, the starvation and famine during the period was so extreme "that notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes out of graves and to eate them."

The remains of Jane were unearthed last summer at an L-shaped cellar near a 17th century brick church tower that still stands on Jamestown Island. 

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