The winter of 1609 to 1610 was treacherous for early American settlers. Some 240 of the 300 colonists at Jamestown, in Virginia, died during this period, called the “Starving Time,” when they were under siege and had no way to get food.
Desperate times led to desperate measures. New evidence suggests that includes eating the flesh of fellow colonists who had already died.
Archaeologists revealed Wednesday their analysis of 17th century skeletal remains suggesting that settlers practiced cannibalism to survive.
Researchers unearthed an incomplete human skull and tibia (shin bone) in 2012 that contain several features suggesting that this particular person had been cannibalized. The remains come from a 14-year-old girl of English origin, whom historians are calling “Jane.”
There are about half a dozen accounts that mention cannibalistic behaviors at that time, although the record is limited, said Douglas Owsley, division head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of National History.
The newly analyzed remains support these accounts, providing the first forensic evidence of cannibalism in the American colonies.
What we know from the bones
Jane’s remains were found in a 17th-century trash deposit at the former site of James Fort. William Kelso, chief archaeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project said at a briefing Wednesday that the fort was built in 1607, but has been washed away. Kelso and colleagues began digging in 1994 and have been excavating the site on Jamestown Island ever since.
Owsley and colleagues can tell quite a bit about what happened to Jane when at least one starving settler in the fort apparently tried to feed off of her.
If it’s any consolation, it appears that she was already dead at the time. …
Six ships reached Jamestown in August 1609, with spoiled or depleted food, and many settlers in poor health. “On one of those ships was Jane,” Horn said.
At the same time, the relationship between the Jamestown colonists and the native Powhatan Indians had broken down. The existing settlers were already experiencing disease and a shortage of food, and the demands they made on the Powhatans strained their relations.
That was the environment into which 300 additional settlers arrived at the James Fort.
One of the leaders of the group, Captain John Smith — the same one who was famously friends with Pocahontas — returned to England in October 1609 because he was injured, Owsley said, leaving a leadership vacuum.
In the fall, the Powhatans waged war against these colonists, and launched a siege against the fort.
With no way to get food from the outside, the colonists resorted to eating horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice and snakes, Horn said, according to the accounts of George Percy, who was the president of Jamestown during this time. There are even accounts of people eating their shoes and any other leather that could be found. Anyone who left to try to scrounge for roots in the woods was killed by the Powhatans.
Percy wrote, according to the Smithsonian, “thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” In other words, cannibalism. …
A bit more history for context:
Captain John Smith became the colony’s leader in September 1608 – the fourth in a succession of council presidents – and established a “no work, no food” policy. Smith had been instrumental in trading with the Powhatan Indians for food. However, in the fall of 1609 he was injured by burning gunpowder and left for England. Smith never returned to Virginia, but promoted colonization of North America until his death in 1631 and published numerous accounts of the Virginia colony, providing invaluable material for historians.
Smith’s departure was followed by the “starving time,” a period of warfare between the colonists and Indians and the deaths of many English men and women from starvation and disease. Just when the colonists decided to abandon Jamestown in Spring 1610, settlers with supplies arrived from England, eager to find wealth in Virginia. This group of new settlers arrived under the second charter issued by King James I. This charter provided for stronger leadership under a governor who served with a group of advisors, and the introduction of a period of military law that carried harsh punishments for those who did not obey.
In order to make a profit for the Virginia Company, settlers tried a number of small industries, including glassmaking, wood production, and pitch and tar and potash manufacture. However, until the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop about 1613 by colonist John Rolfe, who later married Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas, none of the colonists’ efforts to establish profitable enterprises were successful. Tobacco cultivation required large amounts of land and labor and stimulated the rapid growth of the Virginia colony. Settlers moved onto the lands occupied by the Powhatan Indians, and increased numbers of indentured servants came to Virginia.
The first documented Africans in Virginia arrived in 1619. They were from the kingdom of Ndongo in Angola, West Central Africa, and had been captured during war with the Portuguese. While these first Africans may have been treated as indentured servants, the customary practice of owning Africans as slaves for life appeared by mid-century. The number of African slaves increased significantly in the second half of the 17th century, replacing indentured servants as the primary source of labor.