Cannibalism at Jamestown: Listening to the Bones

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She was thrown out, or at least her head was, with the remains of other animals — dogs, horses, squirrels — and other debris that the colonists discarded during the winter of 1609–10.

There are no records of the young girl’s life, no diaries that record the perilous journey — likely through an ocean hurricane — from her native England to the shores of Virginia. There are no town ledgers that make note of her family, where she lived or how she spent her days.

There are only her bones, which in the hands of forensic archaeologists, are speaking volumes on her behalf.

Discovered deep in a cellar where trash was collected, two-thirds of her skull and a fragment of her right leg show the strongest scientific evidence yet that after she died, she may have been a victim of cannibalism.

Relying on a combination of modern-day techniques including genetic sequencing, chemical analysis and computer modeling, Douglas Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide, both of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian, have pored over the 10% of what remains of the girl, whom they have named Jane.

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“Let me tell you that when you see these cuts on the bone, all over the bone, and the chops … I deal with violence all the time, with people who were dismembered and had traumatic deaths. This is a far different level than that,” says Owsley.

There have been a handful of accounts about the unspeakable acts to which the settlers resorted that winter — the “starving time” — in order to survive. Ships bringing much-needed food and supplies failed to arrived or were delayed by storms, and relations with the local Powhatan Indians had deteriorated to the point where the colonists were hunkered down in the settlement, under siege and afraid to venture beyond the fort’s wooden walls to fish in the nearby James River or hunt in the surrounding woods. Some describe the several hundred colonists eating horses, dogs and other animals, while others boiled shoes and leather for sustenance. One grisly report detailed how a husband killed, salted and ate his pregnant wife, for which he was executed.

Owsley’s confidence in the latest evidence of cannibalism comes from cutting-edge forensic sleuthing tools, as well as his experience analyzing bones from thousands of years ago and those belonging to modern-day victims of crime in his collaborations with law enforcement.

The physical scars on what remains of the skull tell a gruesome story of an inept attempt to break through the hard bone. “When you look at the chops, it’s very clear that the person doing this was not a butcher, not skilled in kitchen work at all,” says Owsley. “There was a tentativeness that grows in progression. There was a clear intent in terms of using a sharp cleaver or a small hatchet to the forehead, and these chops progressed to the back of the head, and were closely spaced, about an inch apart, until the last one succeeded in cracking the skull open.” There are also signs of a puncture on the left temple where a sharp instrument might have been inserted to provide some leverage in compressing the bone and breaking into the side of the head.

The facial bones also bear the telling signs of multiple cuts with a sharp knife, and evidence that a knife was used to remove the tissues around the throat and pharynx area. “There are a lot of bizarre things that we do not see with dog bones,” says Owsley, suggesting that the animals found in the settlement may have been killed by professional butchers. “There was a lot of cutting, of sawing back and forth with a sharp knife.”

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He’s also absolutely certain that the marks were not made by animals foraging on the body after death. “I’m very used to seeing postmortem animal damage from chewing and gnawing, and this is absolutely not that,” he says. “This is clearly work done by metal tools such as a cleaver or a lightweight hatchet and a knife.”

Based on the pattern of chops, he also believes that Jane was dead before the cuts were made. The chops were spaced close enough together to suggest that whoever wielded the cleaver or hatchet was right-handed, able to stand above the head and make repeated strikes unhindered.

But apart from the disturbing story that the bones tell, they also contain clues to Jane’s background and what her life may have been like before she perished in Virginia. Narrowing down her age was possible by looking at the size of her skull and the presence of a suture at its base, which usually doesn’t close until age 15 or 16; Jane’s was still unfused. Her wisdom teeth and third molars were also still coming up, which further suggested she was young, not yet in her 20s. Evidence of wearing in her front teeth also hints that she may have already been learning how to sew — a skill that was expected of girls and women at the time — and using her teeth to bite off threads.

And based on a carbon analysis of the remains, Owsley says she was likely a recent addition to the Jamestown settlement; she did not show signs of having eaten much of the corn-based diet typical of settlers in the New World. She still showed stronger carbon signals for grains such as wheat, barley and rye, which were more common in Europe at the time.

Her bones also contained high levels of nitrogen, a sign that she may have come from a well-to-do family in England that could afford a meat-heavy diet. Owsley is waiting for additional tests of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury that could confirm her social status; wealthy citizens were more likely to have eaten off glazed earthenware or pewter and absorbed higher amounts of these metals that would remain detectable in the remains today.

He says it may even be possible to pinpoint where in England she grew up; remaining isotopes of oxygen in the bones could isolate the coastal region where she had spent most of her time.

If more of her remains are found, the researchers are hoping to determine how she died. Typhoid and malaria were prevalent in Jamestown, and genetic analysis for the DNA of these microbes could reveal whether Jane succumbed to an infectious disease or to starvation, as hundreds of her fellow colonists did.

Jane may not have left behind any written accounts of her life, but her bones, says Owsley, may be just as revealing. “The women and girls at the time are like little ghosts in the sense they are unknown in the history books, but we can do the analysis on their remains and learn a great deal about them.” In Jane’s case, her remains are “speaking for a girl who can’t speak for herself.”