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Forensic anthropology and archaeology confirm survival cannibalism in 17th-century North America

May 1, 2013
Forensic anthropology and archaeology confirm survival cannibalism in 17th-century North America

Washington, D.C., May 1, 2013


Today, the Smithsonian Institution, Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia came together to confirm the first scientifically-proven occurrence of survival cannibalism in Colonial America. The collaboration was prompted by the archaeological discovery of a partial human skull and tibia during excavation of an early 17th-century trash deposit at Jamestown, Va. The findings date to the winter of 1609-1610 -- often referred to as the "starving time" at Jamestown -- when sickness, starvation and Indian attacks led to the deaths of more than 200 men, women, and children crowded into James Fort. The forensic evidence confirms a desperate battle for survival. While several written accounts of survival cannibalism in the American colonies exist, this is the first time that cannibalism has been proven by forensic evidence.

"Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the location of the discovery, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones immediately made us realize this finding was unusual," said Dr. Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project who has been overseeing excavations at Jamestown for more than 20 years. "We approached the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History for further research because of their proven understanding of the contextual history in this part of Virginia."

Dr. Douglas Owsley, Division Head of Physical Anthropology at the museum, identified chops to the forehead and back of the cranium to open the head; knife cuts on the jaw and cheek indicating removal of the flesh; and markings indicating the head's left side was punctured and pried apart: all physical evidence consistent with survival cannibalism. Further investigation of the remains allowed Dr. Owsley to determine the subject's sex, age, ancestry, and status. The shape of the skull and size of the tibia indicate the remains are female. Examination of molar development and the growth stage of the joint below the knee indicate that she was about 14 years old. Isotopic testing found she had consumed a European diet of wheat and meat, while oxygen levels and skull shape reiterated her country of origin.

The research team has named her "Jane." Her identity is unknown, and although DNA samples have been saved for future examination, there is little hope of identifying modern relatives for comparative testing.

Based on the anthropological evidence of her diet and the archaeological layer where her partial remains were found, researchers believe "Jane" arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, just months before the worst of the "starving time."

"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," said Jim Horn, Colonial Williamsburg's vice president of research and historical interpretation and an expert on Jamestown history. "Survival cannibalism was a last resort; a desperate means of prolonging life at a time when the settlement teetered on the brink of extinction."

A new exhibition opens Friday, May 3 at The Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne to tell the story of "Jane" and the survival of Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement in America.


For media inquiries, email HJpress@mfaltd.com. 

For general information regarding Historic Jamestowne, email hjadmin@preservationvirginia.org. 

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Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by the National Park Service and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (on behalf of Preservation Virginia) and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Guests to Historic Jamestowne share the moment of discovery with archaeologists and witness archaeology in action at the 1607 James Fort excavation April-October; learn about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavation at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, the site's archaeology museum; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church; and take a walking tour with a Park Ranger through the New Towne area along the scenic James River. Guests can also enjoy lunch or a snack by the James River at the Dale House Café. Information about visiting the island can be found by visitingwww.historicjamestowne.org.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a center for history and citizenship, is a not-for-profit educational institution and cultural destination. The Foundation is dedicated to promoting the importance of an informed, active citizenry. Its mission, "that the future may learn from the past," is realized through offering innovative, imaginative and interactive experiences – both on- and off-site – designed to educate guests about the importance of the American Revolution. From the RevQuest: Save the Revolution! series of technology-assisted alternate reality games, to the theatrical programming of Revolutionary City®, guests can become immersed in the drama of the American Revolution and discover the ongoing relevance of the past. Guests can also visit the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, enjoy the many gardens and green spaces, and visit up to 35 historic sites. To experience all that the Foundation offers, guests may stay in one of the five award-winning Colonial Williamsburg hotels and enjoy the renowned golf courses of the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club, indulge in The Spa of Colonial Williamsburg and shop in 40 stores. Fine dining is offered in more than 20 locations from historic dining taverns to restaurants with contemporary fare. Colonial Williamsburg is open 365 days a year. A full schedule of programs and special events can be found by visitingwww.colonialwilliamsburg.com.

Preservation Virginia, a private non-profit organization and statewide historic preservation leader founded in 1889, is dedicated to perpetuating and revitalizing Virginia's cultural, architectural and historic heritage, thereby ensuring that historic places are integral parts of the lives of present and future generations. In 1893, Preservation Virginia acquired 22.5 acres of Jamestown Island, now part of Historic Jamestowne. In 1994, Preservation Virginia began an archaeological project called Jamestown Rediscovery to find the remains of the original James Fort, ca. 1607-1624. For more information, visit www.preservationvirginia.org

Press Contact

For media inquiries, email HJpress@mfaltd.com. 

For general information regarding Historic Jamestowne, email hjadmin@preservationvirginia.org.