Starving Jamestown Colonists Engaged in Cannibalism

By Lisa Raffensperger | May 1, 2013 10:31 am

The incomplete skull is seen with four shallow chops. Courtesy Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian

Just two years after colonists established the first permanent English settlement in the Americas at Jamestown, disaster struck. During the winter of 1609-1610, known as the “starving time,” about 80 percent of the colonists died. Accounts written at the time indicate that cannibalism was one way the survivors held on. Now, examination of remains of one young woman from the period provide the first physical evidence to confirm that some colonists ate the flesh of their deceased brethren.

The incomplete human skull and tibia were excavated at the settlement’s James Fort. Researchers determined they belonged to a girl approximately 14 years old; her cause of death was unclear.

But after she died there is strong evidence that her flesh was forcibly removed, according to analysis by Douglas Owsley at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Owsley and his team found four shallow chops on the forehead that they say represent a failed attempt to open the skull. The back of the head appears to then have been struck by a series of forceful blows from a small hatchet or cleaver. The cranium was split in half, the left temple was stabbed possibly with a knife, and the implement was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.

Sharp cuts to the bottom of the mandible. Courtesy Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian

Further sharp cuts on the jawbone reflect efforts to remove tissue from the face and cheeks using a knife.

“The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains,” Owsley stated in a press release. “Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, select
MORE ABOUT: cannibalism, jamestown
  • Ron Bockman

    they were British and they’re still eating each other

    • Sara Kirchheimer

      No. There is no cannibalism in the British Navy.

  • Buddy199

    Times were very hard for those people. Rest in peace.

  • Linda Barns

    Could people be kept alive by feeding the lactating women the “lions Share” of whatever they had available, and then use the breast milk for calories, obviously as a last ditch effort to survive?

    • km2012

      Women don’t actually produce “that much” breast milk.

      • Cori Wood

        Not one woman, but perhaps if there were 100 lactating women lol. Youd still end up with about a cup of breast milk per meal per woman anyway though I’d bet.

    • Mary Anne Enriquez

      People starving would most likely not be lactating to begin with.

  • Elizabeth Jetter

    A few years ago they had some indication that a man murdered his wife and ate her at Jamestown. I wouldn’t doubt it.
    They used the term that the settlers ate their “brethern”. I suspect they ate their sisters instead. The Donner group’s females survived better than the males did.

  • cgosling

    I am not surprised. I would do the same to survive. Too bad they did not cultivate a friendship with he local Indians instead of mistreating them. The story of sharing a Thanksgiving meal really misrepresents the true relationship with the locals. The “better than thou” attitude and white man superiority screwed the Indians and took their lands. Some Indian survivors have never recovered from the invasion. Christian conversion brought them no salvation. Their religion and spirituality was almost destroyed. Shame on Imperialism. Shame on Christianity which should have cared and should have known better than to steal and mistreat indigenous populations.

    • Scott Philipp

      Wow. Way to use a simple story about cannibalism to bash Christianity on your little “soapbox”. Doing things like that give your comments no credibility.

      • cgosling

        Scott – Thanks, I try my best. I fully understand my comments will have no credibility with some people.

    • Partyforever

      Shame on the natives for resisting advancement.

  • crimen del siglo

    all that work to eat a 3lb brain and some facial meat ?
    what inticates that any part was eaten ?
    i think they would have had enuf BRAINS to eat the large muscles instead. they are much more obvious and easier to get.
    were 17th centruy english apt to eat animal brains ?
    sounds fishy to me

    • Scott Johnson

      After dying from starvation, there wouldn’t have been much left of the muscle tissue (as photos from the holocaust would confirm).

    • Mary Anne Enriquez

      Actually brain is extremely nutritious ….any organ meats are more nutritious than muscle tissue. Plus….there would not have been any muscle tissue left on a person starving to death…the nutrients would have come from bone marrow, and internal organs like the liver, and heart, as well as the brain.

    • collette

      maybe they had eaten all the major muscle groups already and were going for the last remains, like we do with our thanksgiving turkerys. no disrespect implied.

  • Gary jackson

    This show how the white man couldn’t respect live or anything good, not even the original people of that land who could have saved them by teaching to work the land , yet they fought with them to take from them dam their souls.

    • Sharon Chu

      Jamestown and Plymouth were completely different colonies. I wish people would stop getting them mixed up. Different areas of the colonies were settled by different groups of people. The puritans actually had a trading relationship with the indians. . and Quakers too.

      In other colonies, a lot of the, “non-eldest,” siblings that came from England were land hungry and wanted to take as much of it as they could get and hated the Native Americans as they were an impediment to taking more land. (My father remembers an elderly woman when he was a child in Canada who kept a gun in her closet, “in case the Americans invaded to get more land.”)

      There is a fascinating study somewhere about how American accents correspond with different accents that were in England at the time of the colonies. Point being, different American colonies were settled by different groups for different reasons and they can’t all be painted with same broad brush stroke

  • Amanda Qualls Allen

    I think this is all conjuncture… Silliness…

    • Mary Anne Enriquez

      Anyone in the forensics field…any scientist would disagree. The evidence is enormous and non debatable at this point.

  • Sara Kirchheimer

    For background on how this girl was brought to this perilous place of Jamestown: She was undoubtedly one among the “superfluous multitude” kidnapped and forced into indentured servitude. The quote below is from “With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America” by Scott Christianson and describes drafting child servants for Virginia at a time when more than half of Virginia immigrants died the first year.

    “Sandys [of the Virginia Company] reported to the Crown that the Council had “appointed 100 children from the superfluous mulititude to be transported to Virginia, there to be bound apprentices for certain years, and afterward with very beneficial conditions for the children.” But he was careful to request legal authorization that would enable him to coerce the youngsters. As it granted Sandys’s request, the Privy Council commended the city fathers for “redeeming so many poor souls from misery and ruin and putting them into a condition of use and service to the State.” …

    …roundups became routine. Soon the Virginia Company’s request for another 100 children was quickly approved and another batch was swept up and sent away… a letter of 1627 mentions 1,400 to 1,500 children as being shipped to Virginia. The policy of allowing, even encouraging, private companies to forcily apprehend, detain, transport, and sell into service lower-class children was legitimized by every branch and level of government and praised by the highest church officials. Shipping such persons abroad, John Donne said, “is not only a spleen to drain the ill humors of the body, but a liver to breed good blood.” This seizure (or “napping”) of children (“kids”) for shipment ot America as servants became so well-known that the practice acquired a new name: “kidnapping.” “

    • Scott Johnson

      Or she could easily have been married to one of the older male settlers.

    • Mary Anne Enriquez

      People sold their children too. They were not all kidnapped….especially girls were sold.

  • Gabriel Dukes

    Not very convincing to me. Archeology is interesting, but it seems to me they come to large conclusions based on the tiniest bit of evidence. I am sure they do the best they can do. It is what it is.

    • Mary Anne Enriquez

      Your comment shows no understanding of reputable and long time forensic science. The study of cut and tool marks on animal and human bones is standard accepted sience. And there is no creative theorizing. The study of cut marks on ancient remains going back a million years or more is not debatable.

      Anthropology is extremely reputable. What has been presented here is enormous proof….nothing “tiny” here.

  • Mary Anne Enriquez

    Because of the way the cut marks are. Assault marks are different. Besides. The eye witness accounts mentioned it happened….and now the physical evidence substantiates it.

  • crimen del siglo

    in the WINTER of 1607 there was a lot going on to cause death, INCLUDING starvation. under the circumstances there may have been plenty of flesh on them bones, just like other cases where groups had “starved” and were cannibalized by their buddies.

    starvation is a process not an event – it takes time to starve, time which may have been occupied by cannibalism

    i think the article was a bit premature, so little evidence (except for the diary or later publication in the late 1520s.) i think of eating old shoes and belts when i get really hungry, gnawing on the deceased bones and sinews and skin.

    but that is another story


  • Francisco Higuera

    Creo que todo el mundo habría hecho lo mismo, si se diese la misma condicion de hambre tan tremenda que hubo en aquel momento.


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