Grisly new evidence reveals American colonists resorted to cannibalism

Historians have long speculated that punishing conditions in Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in the Americas – may have driven some of its residents to cannibalism. Now, archeologists say they've uncovered their first hard evidence of colonial anthrophagy: the hacked-at remains of a teenage girl, apparently butchered for her meat.

Above: A closeup of cut marks found on the girl’s lower mandible, photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert

Smithsonian Mag's Joseph Stromberg has the harrowing details:

The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable. A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the “Starving Time.” But a few other newly discovered bones in particular, though, tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.

“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” says Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones after they were found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia. “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head [see image below], 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.”

Much is still unknown about the circumstances of this grisly meal: Who exactly the girl researchers are calling "Jane" was, whether she was murdered or died of natural causes, whether multiple people participated in the butchering or it was a solo act. But as Owsley revealed along with lead archaeologist William Kelso today at a press conference at the National Museum of Natural History, we now have the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas. “Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there,” Owsley says. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”

Grisly new evidence reveals American colonists resorted to cannibalism

Above: Four shallow chop marks on the top of the girl’s skull, photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert

The rest of Stromberg's piece is as morbid as it is fascinating. Check it out, along with several more images, over at Smithsonian.