The early American settlers called it “the starving time,” and accounts of the winter of 1609-1610 were so ghastly, and so morbid, that scholars weren’t sure if the stories were true.
George Percy, then president of the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, wrote that settlers ate horses, then cats and dogs, then boots and bits of leather, and, finally, one another.
“One of our colony murdered his wife, ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the river, and after chopped the mother in pieces and salted her for his food,” wrote Percy, who then ordered the man executed.
“Now whether she was better roasted, boyled or carbonado’d [barbecued], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of,” added the famed settler John Smith. “This was that time, which still to this day we called the starving time; it were too vile to say, and scarce to be beleeved, what we endured.”
Until now: Researchers said Wednesday that they have discovered the first forensic proof that cannibalism happened at Jamestown during one of its darkest periods.
The announcement was presented by Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, chief archaeologist William Kelso from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project at Preservation Virginia and historian James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg.
But the biggest name involved with the announcement was “Jane,” the nickname given to the remains of a 14-year-old girl found last year in settlement trash from the starving period.
Archaeologists did not find much of Jane -- just part of her skull and part of her leg, or 10% of her body -- but said those remains showed that someone tried to eat her, apparently after she had died of an undetermined cause.
Someone made four small chops to Jane’s forehead before an ax or cleaver broke open the back of her skull, the researchers said. There were also small knife cuts on her jaw and cheek.
“The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609–1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl’s body,” Smithsonian anthropologist Owsley said in the announcement. “The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains. Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption.”
Researchers took DNA from Jane in case that her real identity could be someday discovered by matching samples with those of her family’s descendants, though officials said finding relatives was unlikely.
Tests showed that Jane had a diet of wheat and meat, said officials, who believe she arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, mere months before the worst of the colonists’ starvation. That winter, 80% of the settlers died -- about 200 people -- sometimes at the hands of the Native Americans living in the area.
“The ‘starving time’ was brought about by a trifecta of disasters: disease, a serious shortage of provisions, and a full scale siege by the Powhatans that cut off Jamestown from outside relief,” Colonial Williamsburg’s researcher Horn said in the announcement. “Survival cannibalism was a last resort; a desperate means of prolonging life at a time when the settlement teetered on the brink of extinction.”
By May, the colony’s Percy wrote, settlers called out to visitors, “We are starved, we are starved.”
One man, Hugh Pryse, “being pinched with extreme famine ... did come openly into the market place blaspheming, exclaiming and crying out that there was no God, alleging that if there were a god he would not suffer his creatures whom he had made and framed to endure those miseries.” Pryse was soon killed by Native Americans, Percy wrote, surely in divine punishment for his blasphemy.
Jamestown, although almost abandoned, survived after more settlers and colonists arrived.
The discovery of Jane came as part of a 20-year excavation of the colonists’ original settlement. A digital reconstruction of her face will go on display Friday at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne and at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.