The Dinner of Doom

Published:May 1, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

Four shallow chop marks on the top of a girl's skull, evidence of cannibalism during the Starving Time (Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert)A young girl's features are reconstructed based on forensic evidence gathered at Jamestown (Studio EIS / Don Hurlbert)

Smithsonian magazine reports that archaeologists at Jamestown have found portions of the remains of a fourteen-year-old English girl believed to have been cannibalized during the winter of 1609–1610, which has come to be known as the Starving Time.

It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death. There’s no evidence of murder, and [Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas] Owsley suspects that this was a case in which hungry colonists simply ate the one remaining food available to them, despite cultural taboos. “I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” he says. “It’s just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”

To quote one of my colleagues: “I mean, it’s sad and gross—but isn’t it kinda cool how much we are still learning about that period?”

It is! As our entry points out, until now there has been no direct physical evidence of cannibalism during the Starving Time, even though it was reported by people who survived, among them George Percy, who wrote that some people exhume and ate the dead, while others “Licked upp the Bloode w[hi]ch hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.” John Smith (depending upon other people’s recollections) told a cannibalism story in his history, and in 1624, when the Virginia Company was under investigation and a nasty sort of political cannibalism was in process, the General Assembly issued a report that echoed Smith’s.

A human skull had even been found by archaeologists in among remains of snakes, vipers, rats, mice, musk turtles, cats, and dogs—all consumed by the settlers. But absent knife or chop marks, that skull could not be seen as evidence of cannibalism.

This new skull, however:

“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, 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.”

You would be forgiven right now for yelling, “Ewwwwwwwww!” But still. To repeat my colleague’s words, isn’t it kinda cool how much we’re still learning? I mean, now we have to update our entry!

PS: After the jump, that scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. You know which one.

PPS: Many American history textbooks have treated cannibalism at Jamestown as if it were a fact. Here, for instance, is the American Pageant passing along one of the more dubious stories without any caveats: “One hungry man killed, salted, and ate his wife, for which misbehavior he was executed.” We still don’t know whether that’s true. But perhaps if we wait long enough, the archaeologists will verify that, too!

IMAGES: Four shallow chop marks on the top of a girl’s skull, evidence of cannibalism during the Starving Time (Smithsonian Institution / Don Hurlbert); A young girl’s features are reconstructed based on forensic evidence gathered at Jamestown (Studio EIS / Don Hurlbert)


3 Comments on “The Dinner of Doom”

  1. Patsy Anne Bickerstaff

    I ALWAYS heard that women didn’t come to the colonies until 1611. Have I missed something since second-grade history?

    1. Brendan Wolfe Post author

      Ms. Bickerstaff, Accept my apologies for the slow reply. This is from our still-in-progress entry on women in colonial Virginia:

      The first two English women to arrive in Virginia came in mid-October 1608 as part of the so-called Second Supply of colonists. Mistress Forrest made the journey with her husband, Thomas Forrest, and her maid, Ann Burras. Thomas Forrest was the first colonist to have authority over both his wife and a dependent member of his household. Before the end of 1608, Ann Burras married John Laydon, a laborer and one of the original settlers. English women continued to trickle into the colony after Forrest and Burras’s arrival, although a concerted effort to increase the English female population of Virginia was not made until 1619.

      In other words, it took more than a decade for women to arrive in real numbers, but they were in Virginia from almost the very beginning.

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