Our earliest Jamestown settlers survived brutal conditions in order to ensure their survival. Just how far those settlers went was revealed Wednesday, when scientists said they have uncovered evidence of cannibalism, says the Associated Press via ABC News May 1.
For years, tales of people in the first permanent settlement in America surviving by eating dogs, cats, rats and the like, even old shoe leather, have become so common they are now mentioned in school history books.
Written accounts of settlers eating their own dead have also been put forth, but until now, archaeologists and scientists have dismissed them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, along with archaeologists from Jamestown, are announcing the discovery of the bones of a 14-year-old girl that show clear signs that she was cannibalized.
The Associated Press says the evidence indicates clumsy chops to the body and head of the girl, who appears to have already been dead at the time.
Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley said the human remains date back to approximately 1609 to 1610, a time when harsh winters cost many lives due to starvation. Hundreds of the roughly 6,000 settlers died between 1607 and 1625 due to severe hunger.
“This does represent a clear case of dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption,” he said of the butchered corpse, which indicated the level of desperation.
Early Jamestown colony leader George Percy wrote a chilling narrative and painted a “world of miseries,” including digging up corpses from graves to eat when there was nothing else. “Nothing was spared to maintain life,” he wrote.
Percy and Capt. John Smith, the colony’s most famous leader, documented these cannibalistic tales.
Smith wrote the following horrifying narrative:
“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.”
Archaeologists were skeptical of these seemingly far-fetched tales, but the evidence now is changing their minds.
“Historians have questioned, well did it happen or not happen?” Owsley said. “And this is very convincing evidence that it did.”
The remains of the 14-year-old girl, named “Jane” by researchers, were discovered last year. Her remains were found in a cellar at a site that had been filled with trash, including horse bones and other animals that had been consumed.
James Horn, the vice president of research at nearby Colonial Williamsburg, overseeing the excavations, said visitors will have a better understanding of a terrible time in early American history.
“I think we are better served by understanding history, warts and all, because I think it gives us a better understanding of who we are as a people,” Horn said.