The first American colonists at Jamestown, Virginia resorted to cannibalism to survive harsh conditions between 1607 and 1625, according to a new find by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
The remains of a 14-year-old girl whose skull was split open after her death and later dumped in a trash pit with slaughtered animals were recovered in Jamestown during an excavation in 2012. Researchers were able to date the bones to the winter of 1609-1610, known to historians as the “starving time” when hundreds of colonists died.
“Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the location of the discovery, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones immediately made us realize this finding was unusual,” archaeologist Bill Kelso said in an advisory. “We approached the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for further research because of their proven understanding of the contextual history in this part of Virginia.”
The girl has since been named “Jane,” and researchers say the injuries she sustained amount to proof that the colonists resorted to cannibalism, which has long been rumored but never proven. Documents preserved from the period spoke of rampant cannibalism, but the latest findings appear to be the first solid confirmation of the historical record.
“The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609–1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl’s body,” a prepared statement by Smithsonian’s Dr. Douglas Owsley explained. “The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains. Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption.”
It’s not clear what killed Jane, but her facial reconstruction will go on display at the National Museum of Natural History on May 3. An image of what she might have looked like (seen above), created using forensic facial reconstruction techniques, was published on the Smithsonian’s website.
This video was published to YouTube by the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project on Wednesday, May 1, 2013.
Correction: An original version of this story said that Jane’s remains would be on display at the National Museum of Natural History.