Archaeologists find evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown

Doug Owsley, division head for Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, displays the skull and facial reconstruction of "Jane of Jamestown" during a news conference.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Doug Owsley, division head for Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, displays the skull and facial reconstruction of "Jane of Jamestown" during a news conference.

Archeologists excavating a trash pit at the Jamestown colony site in Virginia have found the first physical evidence of cannibalism among the desperate population, corroborating written accounts left behind by witnesses. Cut marks on the skull and skeleton of a 14-year-old girl show that her flesh and brain were removed, presumably to be eaten by the starving colonists during the harsh winter of 1609.

The remains were excavated by archeologists led by William Kelso of Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

The skull bears tentative cuts to the forehead, followed by four strikes to the back of the head, one of which split the skull open, according to an article in the Smithsonian magazine, where the find was reported Wednesday.


It is unclear how the young girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered.

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The girl’s remains were discovered last summer in a refuse dump containing horse and dog bones. From the state of her molars, she is judged to have been 14 years old. Isotopes in her bones indicate she had eaten a high-protein diet, so was probably the daughter of a gentleman, not a maidservant.

Owsley said in an interview that he could tell she was English because of his familiarity with English skeletal remains of the 17th century and from scientific tests. The ratio of oxygen isotopes in her bones indicated that she had grown up in the southern coastal regions of England, Owsley said, and the carbon isotopes pointed to a diet of English rye and barley.

James Horn, a historian with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said at a news conference Wednesday that the young woman probably arrived on one of the six surviving ships from a supply fleet that sailed from Plymouth, England, in early June 1609. A week short of its destination, the fleet was scattered by a massive hurricane. The flagship, named the Sea Venture, which carried the expedition’s leaders, was driven onto reefs at Bermuda, an event that became the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play ‘‘The Tempest,’’ Horn said.

In mid-August, six of the ships eventually reached Jamestown. But their arrival, with little food and many extra mouths, did not bring relief or comfort. The settlers’ insistent demands for food had antagonized the Powhatan Indians, who at first had welcomed and provisioned them. In October or early November, with some 300 colonists crowded into the narrow confines of the James fort, the Powhatans launched a full-scale attack and siege, cutting off any hope of outside relief.


People began eating leather from their clothes and boots and killing their horses, cats, and dogs. Those who ventured into the woods in search of roots were killed by Indians. “Only in the most desperate of circumstances would the English have turned to cannibalism,’’ Horn said.

The colony was saved in May 1610 by the arrival of the settlers who had been marooned in Bermuda. They found the 60 survivors as thin as skeletons. In June 1610, another relief fleet arrived, commanded by Baron De La Warre, who would later lend his name to the state of Delaware. De La Warre’s men swept up the grisly remains of the siege — dog and horse bones and those of at least one person — into a refuse pile which Kelso and his colleagues have just begun to excavate.

The Jamestown site was long thought to have eroded into the James River but was rediscovered by Kelso and other archeologists, who began excavations in 1994.

The site had been selected for colonization in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London because no Indians lived there, but — as it turned out — the land was uninhabited because it was swampy and unsuitable for agriculture.

Bernard Bailyn, a Harvard historian and specialist on Colonial history, said the new report of cannibalism was very interesting.


‘‘It’s part of the disaster the company faced and the terrible problems they had at the beginning,’’ he said.

As to the reasons the Virginia company failed to provide adequate support to its colony, ‘‘Whose fault it was is very difficult to say,’’ Bailyn said.