Cannibalism in Jamestown: Colonists Ate a 14-Year-Old Girl's Brain

Archaeologists announced today the "first solid evidence" that some 17th-century American colonists consumed one another.
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Numerous small knife cuts along the jawbone of "Jane of Jamestown," seen during a news conference at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History today (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

"So great was our famine, that a savage we slew and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and eat him," Captain John Smith wrote in 1624 of the scene in Jamestown, Virginia. He continued, "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. Now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado'd, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of."

Too soon, Captain John Smith. Too soon.

SHARK300200.jpgA facial reconstruction of Jane of Jamestown (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

It would've also been too soon if Doug Owsley had said the same today, when the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's Division Head for Physical Anthropology spoke at a press conference in Washington, D.C. There he and colleagues announced what they call the first clear physical evidence that there was cannibalism at the Jamestown colony. Their announcement seems to confirm written accounts like that of Captain Smith, which appeared similarly in the minutes of Virginia's General Assembly in the same year.

The findings involve the cranium and mandible among other bones of what Owsley and colleagues determined to have been a 14-year-old girl. They call her Jane.

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Strike marks on the skull (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

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Doug Owsley, division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, demonstrates how the strike marks were made. (AP / Carolyn Kaster)

The anthropologists date the act to the winter of 1609-10, part of the "Starving Time," during which conditions were abominable. There was dissent, drought, famine, and the colony was under attack from the aforementioned "savages" of the Powhatan confederation. Only 20 percent of the colonists survived that winter.

Owsley, a forensic specialist, described the scene of Jane's butchering in unsettling detail:

The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete ... The person is truly figuring it out as they go. ... 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.

They estimate that Jane was buried and subsequently exhumed prior to cannibalization.

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(AP / Carolyn Kaster)

The bones were found in a cellar, among those of dogs and squirrels. Of course, as Owsley concluded, "We didn't see anybody eat this flesh. But ... given these bones [were] in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption."

Lead Jamestown archaeologist William Kelso added, "We don't believe Jane was a lone case."

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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