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Cannibalism at Jamestown

  • “The person [Jamestown cannibal] is truly figuring it out as they go,” said Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

    “The person [Jamestown cannibal] is truly figuring it out as they go,” said Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

  • A view of the skeleton of “Jane,” a 17th-century teen-ager from Jamestown. The skull has  the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

    A view of the skeleton of “Jane,” a 17th-century teen-ager from Jamestown. The skull has the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

  • Proof that colonists resorted to cannibalism during the winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown comes in the form of fragments from the skeleton of a girl, about age 14. Reconstruction based on girls in southern England at the time. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

    Proof that colonists resorted to cannibalism during the winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown comes in the form of fragments from the skeleton of a girl, about age 14. Reconstruction based on girls in southern England at the time. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

  • “The person [Jamestown cannibal] is truly figuring it out as they go,” said Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)
  • A view of the skeleton of “Jane,” a 17th-century teen-ager from Jamestown. The skull has  the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)
  • Proof that colonists resorted to cannibalism during the winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown comes in the form of fragments from the skeleton of a girl, about age 14. Reconstruction based on girls in southern England at the time. Illustrates CANNIBAL (category a), by David Brown (c) 2013, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, May 1, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson.)

Washington — The first chops, to the forehead, did not go through the bone and are perhaps evidence of hesitancy about the task. The next set, after the body was rolled over, were more effective. One cut split the skull all the way to the base.

“The person is truly figuring it out as they go,” said Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution.

In the meantime, someone — perhaps with more experience — was working on a leg. The tibia bone is broken with a single blow, as one might do in butchering a cow.

That’s one possible version of an event that took place sometime during the winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown. What’s certain is that some members of that desperate colony resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.

That cannibalism occurred during the colony’s “starving time” was never in much doubt. At least a half-dozen accounts, by people who lived through the period or spoke to colonists who did, describe occasional acts of cannibalism that winter. They include reports of corpses being exhumed and eaten; a husband killing his wife and salting her flesh (for which he was executed); and the mysterious disappearance of foraging colonists.

The proof comes in the form of fragments of a skeleton of a girl, about age 14, found in a cellar full of debris in the fort on the James River that sheltered the starving colonists. The skull, lower jaw and leg bone — all that remain — have the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife.

“Historians have to decide whether this type of thing happened,” said Owsley, who has examined thousands of skeletal remains, both archaeological and forensic. “I think that it did. We didn’t see anybody eat this flesh. But it’s very strong evidence.”

James Horn, head of research at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a historian on the colony, said the discovery “adds a significant confirmation to what was reported to have occurred at Jamestown.” Further, it’s the only physical evidence of cannibalism of Europeans in any New World colony, although, as with Jamestown, there are written accounts of the practice in others.

“I tend to be sparing in the use of words like ‘unique.’ But I think this is one of those finds that literally is,” Horn said.

About 300 people inhabited the fort in November 1609. By spring, there were only 60. The girl, most likely a maidservant but possibly the daughter of a colonist, was one of the casualties.

Her bones were unearthed last August as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery archaelogical project begun in 1994. About 18 inches of fill remain in the cellar; it’s possible more of her skeleton will be found. Enough of her skull exists, however, to imagine what she might have looked like, using CT scanning, computer graphics, sculpture materials and demographic data.

The bones, the reconstruction of her head, and the story were presented yesterday at an event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. They will be displayed at Jamestown starting this weekend.

The starving time nearly ended the colony, which was riven by internal dissent, under attack by Powhatan Indians, and short of food almost from its founding in 1607.

A resupply fleet of nine vessels had left Plymouth, England, on June 2, 1609. Aboard, including crew, were 500 people, of which perhaps three dozen were women and girls.

The fleet was struck by a hurricane on July 23, 1609. One ship sank. The flagship, Sea Venture, wrecked on Bermuda. Most of the passengers and crew escaped to the island, an event that became the kernel of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among the survivors was the colony’s incoming lieutenant governor, Thomas Gates. (The marooned fashioned two boats from the wreck’s remains and miraculously sailed into Jamestown the next May.)

The seven other ships, scattered and damaged, sailed on. Six arrived in mid-August, with the girl, whom the researchers have named “Jane”, almost certainly on one of them. The seventh ship arrived in October.

The new arrivals — about 300 people — proved to be as much a drain on the colony as a relief.

The ships’ crews hoarded provisions. The summer corn crop was only enough to feed about 50 people for a year. The colony’s military leader, Captain John Smith, sent two groups of colonists upstream and downstream to fend for themselves. He was badly wounded in what was probably an assassination attempt, and in October sailed home with the ships. By then people were already going hungry.

The girl’s bones were found mixed with those of a horse, dogs and squirrels — testament to the extreme food sources the colonists turned to that winter. They were part of the trash collected in a fort-wide clean-up and dumped in the cellar before the arrival of the colony’s governor, Lord De la Warr, the following June.

The cause of her death isn’t known. The tentative cuts to the front of the skull and the deeper ones to the back are all close together — evidence she was dead, not squirming, when they were made. The temporal bone was pried off to reach the brain. There are dozens of cuts to the jaw, suggesting muscle was stripped from it.

Could the marks have been left by animals?

“Not a chance. I deal with this all the time. Not a chance,” Owsley said. In fact, he can say with confidence the dissector or dissectors were right-handed.

Chemical analysis of the bone reveals an enriched “nitrogen profile,” evidence of lots of protein in girl’s diet. That, in turn, suggests she was a member of a high-born family or at least lived in such a household for much of her life.

She wouldn’t have gone to Jamestown alone. Whomever accompanied her was probably dead by the time she became food for the starving. “If she’d had a family to protect her — after death as well as before — this probably wouldn’t have happened,” Horn said.

Learning who she was will be difficult. Complete passenger lists for the voyages don’t exist. Research into the Virginia Company’s sponsors in Plymouth might reveal a family with a girl born in 1595 or 1596 who went to America. There may be extractable DNA in the bone fragments, but at this point there are no descendants to compare it to.

Even the appearance that Owsley and his collaborator, Kari Bruwelheide, gave the girl is to some extent guesswork.

They used the thickness of facial tissue of contemporary girls in southern England to gauge Jane’s. They gave her consensus hair — light brown — not the red or blonde of other latitudes and regions. They also chose not to depict her as she undoubtedly was before death, gaunt and emaciated.

“But I didn’t make her look like a healthy, plump teenager either,” Owsley said. “I’m putting her in her circumstances.”

Those include dirt on her face and a thousand-yard stare, but not, alas, a name.