The Horrifying Cannibalism Of The Colony At Jamestown

By Nolan Moore on Wednesday, January 29, 2014
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“Is it progress if a cannibal uses knife and fork?” —Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Unkempt Thoughts

In A Nutshell

In the 17th century, a group of English settlers founded Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas. However, the Virginia settlement has a dark history that involves famine, disease, and most shocking of all, cannibalism. In 2012, archaeologists found the remains of a young, cannibalized girl so they asked forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley to figure out who she was and what exactly happened to her.

The Whole Bushel

If you’ve ever studied American history or watched a Disney movie, then you’ve probably heard of Jamestown. Located in Virginia, the colony was founded in 1607 by 104 settlers eager for fortune and adventure. However, life in Jamestown wasn’t all helpful wildlife, talking trees, and painting with the colors of the wind. In fact, it was pretty horrible, especially during the period known as the Starving Time.

The Jamestown settlers didn’t have the Weather Channel so when they showed up in the New World, they didn’t know they’d arrived just in time for one of the worst droughts in Virginia’s history. They also weren’t very good farmers, and in less than a year, 66 of the original colonists were dead, victims of sickness and starvation. New recruits from England occasionally showed up, but things kept getting worse. As the winter of 1609 rolled around, Jamestown’s relationship with the local Native American tribes had soured so the settlers couldn’t expect any free handouts. Even worse, a ship that was supposed to bring supplies had gotten lost at sea. Desperate, people started eating their livestock. Next, they went after the pets and pests. After folk finished the cats and rats, they boiled any leather they could find. People were actually eating their own shoes. But things got worse . . . much worse.

George Percy was the president of Jamestown in 1609, and in 1625, he wrote a letter detailing the horrors of the Starving Time. According to Percy, the colonists were resorting to vampirism. In his own words, “Some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” There are at least five accounts of the Jamestown settlers resorting to cannibalism, including one gory tale that sounds like it was ripped out of a Thomas Harris novel. In Percy’s letter, he wrote about how he executed a criminal who allegedly salted and ate his pregnant wife. However, historians have been very skeptical of these outrageous claims. Many researchers believed the stories were just fabrications meant to destroy the Virginia Company’s reputation. However, their opinions changed in 2012.

Archaeologists from Preservation Virginia were excavating a fort (James Fort to be precise) when they came across a pit full of animal bones. However, after digging a bit deeper, they made a pretty shocking discovery. Under the skeletons of dogs and horses, they found the remains of a human skull and a shinbone. After closer examination, they realized the bones were covered in cut marks. It looked like some unlucky immigrant had ended up on the menu. To solve the mystery of the 400-year-old cannibal, archaeologists called Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who’s traveled the world examining skeletons. (He’s so good that the FBI even asked him to help out on the Jeffrey Dahmer case.) Even though only 66 percent of the skull remained, Owsley reconstructed the victim’s head and face using 3-D models. He determined the deliciously departed was a 14-year-old English girl who investigators nicknamed “Jane.” But who was Jane exactly, and who killed her?

After an isotope analysis, Owsley deduced that Jane was probably one of Jamestown’s elites, perhaps the child of a wealthy gentleman. How did he come to that conclusion? Jane’s bones revealed a diet high in protein, indicating she had access to food that most colonists didn’t. But what about the person who made a meal out of her? Well, Owsley believes Jane was eaten by at least two cannibals. The first suspect sliced up Jane’s face. Owsley found four chop marks on the forehead, and four on the back of the skull, one of which cracked her skull. The cannibal probably used a cleaver, and he was definitely planning on eating her brain. Other marks around the jaw show that he was also going after the tongue and cheeks. However, it seems whoever operated on Jane’s face might’ve been a tad nervous about eating human flesh. Owsley described his work as tentative and hesitant. Contrast that to the guy who was working on the leg. His quick cuts indicated he had a little more butchering experience . . . hopefully just skinning deer.

However, Owsley doesn’t think this was the work of some murderous tag team. The cuts on Jane’s head were very close together, very exact. If she’d been alive while she was being carved up for dinner, the marks would be a little more erratic, not so precise. She would have probably struggled. The people who ate Jane weren’t Jacobean Hannibals. They were starving settlers on the verge of death, so insane with hunger they decided to break humanity’s greatest taboo. Think about that the next time you watch Pocahontas.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism
National Geographic: Jamestown Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism

  • Marozia

    “More Secrets of the Dead” by Hugh Miller, Chapter 1 “The Jamestown Massacre” goes through the entire scenario according to what archaeologists found on the bodies of the settlers. There was no doubt that cannibalism had happened but also that the drinking water had been poisoned with arsenic. The Native American people helped out all they could with giving the settlers help, but this also depleted their own supplies of food. Is it possible that the settlers were too weak to get food due to the arsenical poisoning? The diaries of George Percy and John Smith detail the deaths of some settlers, maybe typhus and dysentery for a few of the symptoms, but arsenic could explain all of them. In regards to who poisoned the water supply, quoting from the book “When Guy Fawkes was interrogated about the gunpowder plot, the first person he named was a shadowy figure called Baron Thomas Arundel, a notorious plotter with an interest in alchemy and chemistry. Hancock’s diligent research showed that not only was Arundel a fanatical Catholic, but he had a longstanding ambition to found a Catholic colony in the New World’.

  • skeptic

    Just because she was cut up doesn’t mean she was consumed. This debate has been on going for years and is just now coming back as propaganda. So these people just ate one wealthy girl for fun with no consequences? And then never were brought to trial? Lets see some more evidence, not just one archaeologist who deems these marks as “cuts from a blade.”

    • Angel

      Sorry pal but I highly doubt starving people are cutting some one up with no intentions of eating them.

  • Scott

    The fact of the matter is we’ll never know exactly what happened, we can only make educated guesses. The only thing we know for sure is that living in Jamestown sucked ass.

  • jihadbob

    Maybe she just died not ill, them they ate her, great our ancestors we’re survivalists. Not blood thirsty cannibals.

  • Modular Cat.#7

    Tender white meat.

  • Chaos

    Children are like Veal…..or so I’ve heard

    • Illuminati Recruitment Agency

      Actually people taste like pork.

      *burp*

  • TiffinyVillalon

    What does it Important for the Cannibalism of the colony?
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/12200840185/

  • Doug Orr

    Just think how many family Names didn’t make it past the 1600’s
    Just Sayin?
    dougorrblogbeast.com