Colonial Cannibalism: The Starving Time

By Jack R. Johnson                                                                                  Graphic Illustration by DOUG DOBEY

If you think this winter is rough, consider the so called Starving Time of 1609 in Jamestown, Virginia. That year saw one of the worst regional droughts in centuries, which proved catastrophic for the early colonists.  Many of the settlers were unused to hard agricultural labor and thus depended on supplies brought to them by subsequent missions or by trade with the Powhatan Indians who had become disenchanted with the new comers.  Rather than trade with them, the Indians besieged the fort at Jamestown and would not let them hunt for whatever scarce food remained. The end result—death by starvation and disease –was predictable, but sometimes it was worse: sometimes they ate each other.

In 1625, George Percy, who had been president of Jamestown during the Starving Time wrote a letter describing the colonists’ diet during that terrible winter. “Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather,” he wrote. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, 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.”
Despite such anecdotal evidence of cannibalism, little hard evidence had been discovered until archaeologists from Preservation Virginia dug up the bones of a 14 year old girl in 2012.

They found the girl in a pit, according to lead archaeologist William Kelso in Smithsonian Magazine, “We found a deposit of refuse that contained butchered horse and dog bones. That was only done in times of extreme hunger. As we excavated, we found human teeth and then a partial human skull,” said Kelso.
“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” added Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.”
Owsley told Smithsonian Magazine that the cut marks on the jaw, face and forehead of the skull, along with those on the shinbone, are telltale signs of cannibalism. “The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption. These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used,” says Owsley. “The person that was doing this was not experienced and did not know how to butcher an animal. Instead, we see hesitancy, trial, tentativeness and a total lack of experience.”
Nicknamed ‘Jane’, Owsley speculated that the eaten child likely arrived in the colony during 1609 on one of the resupply ships. She was either a maidservant or the child of a gentleman. The identity of whoever consumed her is entirely unknown, and Owsley guesses there might have been multiple cannibals involved, because the cut marks on her shin indicate a more skilled butcher than whoever dismembered her head.
And she wasn’t the only one, apparently.

George Percy’s letter also describes how, as president of the colony, he tortured and burned alive a man who had confessed to killing, salting and eating his pregnant wife—so the remains of this woman, along with other victims of cannibalism, are still be waiting to be found.

A little good news in all of this, though. Apparently, Jane was not killed, but died of natural causes. Settlers were dying all over the place, so really, there was no need.

And you thought this winter was rough.

About CharlesM 302 Articles
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