As winter fell at the end of 1609, the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, found themselves in dire straits. A powerful hurricane had all but destroyed a fleet of ships carrying provisions from England, leaving the colonial fort with a depleted food supply. Outside the walls, the Powhatan Indians had declared war and were laying siege to the fort, trapping the 300 settlers inside. Out of food and unable to forage, the desperate settlers ate horses, dogs, rats, and snakes. As winter dragged on, they turned to an even more unorthodox source of food: Today, scientists revealed the first physical evidence that the starving colonists at Jamestown ate their dead.
For centuries, it has been rumored that the Jamestown settlers practiced survival cannibalism during the winter of 1609 to 1610—a period known as the "starving time"—but there had never been any conclusive proof of the practice. Although the consumption of human remains by starving colonists is alluded to in eyewitness reports and later records, there was no physical evidence supporting the claims in those texts. Then, archaeologist William Kelso discovered human teeth scattered among the butchered bones of horses and dogs. Eventually, his excavations turned up a partial human skull and fragments of a tibia among the food waste in the starving time layer. The bones were covered in cut marks and the skull had been cracked open, but Kelso couldn't rule out the possibility that the remains had been accidentally damaged by later colonists digging graves. So he sent the bones to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., for forensic analysis.
The bones belonged to a 14-year-old English girl who scientists are calling Jane, according to NMNH physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, who gave a press conference on the finds today. Her skull reveals numerous cuts on the face, chops to the forehead and back of the skull, and penetrating knife wounds with the "clear intent" to remove the brain. "At some point, the head was removed," from the body, Owsley says. Because the cuts are very close together, he is convinced that Jane wasn't moving around or fighting back when the damage was inflicted—good evidence that she was already dead.
Eventually, the flesh was cut away from Jane's cheeks and facial muscles, her tongue was removed, and her brain was extracted through the hole in her skull. English diets in the 17th century often included the cheek, tongue, and brain of animals, so it's not surprising to Owsley that the same parts of Jane's head would have been removed for consumption.
Jane's tibia was skillfully butchered with the same techniques commonly used on animals, but the hesitant and haphazard wounds on her skull indicate a "complete lack of experience" on the part of the person making the cuts, Owsley says. In fact, the cuts on the tibia and skull are so different that it's possible two different people were involved in butchering Jane's body.
Although the scientists have not been able to positively identify Jane, they do know what she looked like. With the help of Stephen L. Rouse, formerly of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, they were able to reconstruct her skull and physical features. "This girl who died 400-plus years ago … will never be forgotten," Rouse says.
"This discovery is just phenomenal," says Julia King, an archaeologist at St. Mary's College of Maryland who has studied other 17th century settlements in the region. She's particularly intrigued by how the find flips the script on how Native Americans were portrayed at the time. Racist rumors that they practiced cannibalism helped Europeans classify them as "savages," she says, although there is no proof that they did. But now we have "evidence that shows that 'civilized' people"—Europeans—were the ones "forced into that position."
Although the cuts on Jane's bones and their location among other food waste point to survival cannibalism, King would like to see if the team at Jamestown can find conclusive signs, like burn marks on bones, that other remains were prepared for human consumption. "There is so much that we still have to learn about this early period" of English settlements in North America, she says, but the Jamestown team is doing "top of the line work."