Archaeologists in Jamestown, Va. have uncovered the first physical evidence of cannibalism in one of America's earliest colonies.
The cannibalism, they believe, occurred during the winter of 1609-1610, the so-called "starving time" at Jamestown, when lean conditions and disease killed off more than 200 settlers. The timing of the cannibalism suggests that it was "survival cannibalism," not ritual.
"Forensic evidence suggests she was dead, that she died of starvation or disease and was dead before she was cannibalized," says Jim Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation with Colonial Williamsburg.
Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, and his colleagues have named the skeleton they've found "Jane." She was about 14 years old when she died.
Kelso and Horn say the discovery confirms written accounts of cannibalism that were previously seen as a ploy to receive additional resources from Europe or to stir infighting within the colony.
"There was a good deal of factionalism between different groups in Jamestown, throwing insults at one another," Horn says. "It was conceivable that they were sensational stories passed around to defame the colony. Now we can be absolutely certain it has taken place – the physical evidence is conclusive and critical."
About that physical evidence: Kelso says that on the skeleton, there are "marks made by different tools such as knives and cleavers."
"There are hundreds of cut marks, sawing marks along the jaw, some of them suggest the removal of soft tissue and the brain," Kelso says. "We feel the nature of the first cuts on the skull, which were close together, were done to someone who was either unconscious or already dead."
Horn called the discovery "totally unique" and said there has never before been any physical evidence of cannibalism in an American colony.
"It's the needle in the haystack," he says.
Though archaeologists knew that the "starving time" at Jamestown was particularly brutal, previously found artifacts suggested that settlers subsisted on wild animals such as turtles, black rats and snakes. Horn says the discovery of survival cannibalism at Jamestown shows just how tough times were.
"It underlines the incredible challenges that early colonists faced. Most European colonies failed within six months to a year," he says. "This gives us a vivid impression of the terrible conditions endured by settlers and their endurance and perseverance. Had Jamestown failed, it's possible the course of American history would be rather different."