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Evidence Of Cannibalism At Jamestown Unearthed By Smithsonian Anthropologist

Jaw found in Jamestown
A jawbone found in an excavation of the Jamestown Colony indicates the settlers may have cannibalized each other. Smithsonian Institution / Don

A new excavation at the site of the Jamestown Colony has found evidence to suggest that the settlers dismembered and cannibalized a 14 year-old girl to keep from starting in the winter of 1609, reports the Smithsonian magazine. Archaeologists from Preservation Virginia found the girl's bones and turned them over to Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley.

"The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete," Owsley tells the magazine. "Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain."

The researchers don't yet know whether the girl, who they call "Jane," was murdered or died of natural causes, but add that it's clear the body was dismembered for consumption as the bones were found chopped up in a trash pit, the Smithsonian says.

The idea that the settlers may have been hungry enough to eat each other is not a new concept, the magazine adds. The colony was founded in 1607, and only 38 of the original 104 settlers survived the first nine months. They had difficulty growing crops, and many starved.

A letter written by George Percy, who had been president of the colony during the winter of 1609 - called the Starving Time - describes the horrific conditions, the Smithsonian says. Percy wrote:

Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce...as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather.

And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.

However, the magazine adds, this is the first time concrete evidence of cannibalism has been found. Owsley did a CT scan of the bones, then reconstructed them using a 3D model. He says the cut marks on the jaw, face, and forehead show someone was trying to get at the brain.

"The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption. These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used," he tells the Smithsonian. "The person that was doing this was not experienced and did not know how to butcher an animal. Instead, we see hesitancy, trial, tentativeness and a total lack of experience."

Owsley is pretty sure this is only the first of many specimens that could prove cannibalism occurred in Jamestown, the magazine adds. 

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