Jamestown Cannibals

Yes, historians have known for centuries that cannibalism existed at Jamestown. But now we have archaeological proof.

“Jane,” a skeleton* of a fourteen-year-old female dug up in August of last year, has shown us that the Jamestown settlers at their darkest moments resorted to what was at the time the unforgivable crime of eating kith and kin. (“Jane” is not the skeleton’s real name.)

George Percy, perhaps most famously, reported the story of a man, “Collines,” who “murdered his wife, ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the river, and chopped the mother into pieces and salted her for his food.”**

Jamestown Rediscovery and Preservation Virginia broke the archaeological news last week. Being a historian that focuses on Colonial America, I wasn’t surprised at all about the findings. But the proof intrigued me.

Who was “Jane?” Was she the woman Percy described? I ventured back to Historic Jamestown today, probably for the 25th time, to see what kind of answers were there.

As for the proof, which is on display at Historic Jamestown’s Archaearium, there are eight positive categories out of nine that are needed to affirm that cannibalism did indeed take place on this skeleton. The only one that is lacking is evidence of actual consumption (which can only be found in the consumer — an impossible task this distant from the date in this climate).

Jane was found in a cellar, inside the original fort. She had what appears to be hatchet marks on the front and back of her skull, and abrasions above her left eye and below her right eye that indicate repeated forward and reverse thrusts from a sharp knife.

The cellar in which "Jane" was exhumed for the second time
The cellar in which “Jane” was exhumed for the second time

Our docent described the hatchet marks in the front of the skull on the forehead as a motion “almost hesitant,” like the consumer was anguished over the necessity of eating the same species. But interestingly, the hatchet marks in the back of the skull are quite deep, and quite heavy, as if it were easier for these starving settlers to prepare the corpse without looking it in the face.

The forensic analysis of the skull shows that it is nearly certain that Jane’s skull was incised post-mortem. This almost certainly eliminates her as the woman Percy described. But it also does not discredit Percy’s account. This crime was so infamous that many others wrote about it as well. John Smith, as well as the Council of Jamestown, described the event very similarly to Percy’s description.

But there is one thing we have forgotten, and that is Percy’s account immediately preceding those horrific details of murder/cannibalism:

“And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpse out of graves and to eat them, and some have licked up the blood which hath fallen from their weak fellows.

It is with all probability that poor Jane was not the unfortunate “powdered wife,” as John Smith put it, but was only one of many corpses whose body was exhumed to be consumed.

It may be likewise possible — though I will defer to those laboratorians who have much more immediate access to evidence — that the “hatchet” marks so hesitatingly given to the forehead may simply be the testing and proving marks of a shovel or spade, given post-mortem to a gentile teen, and one of America’s first women.

We must remember that despite the horror we see in the starving time, that the trials endured produced a stock of Virginians determined not to repeat their miserable mistakes, determined to make the absolute best of their available resources, and to best absolutely their inhibitive obstacles.

If you haven’t made plans to go see Jamestown this year, please do it before they cover up the cellar in which Jane was found. There you will see a kitchen in which Jane may have both prepared food and was prepared herself, as well as see the steps John Smith took only yards from his monument. And don’t forget to go to the Archaearium to see Jane’s display, and see the facial reconstruction of her skull, who will stare hauntingly at you as if to say, “Don’t get too comfortable. I didn’t think it would happen here either.”


*Really, just a skull, a portion of the tibia which includes the ligament patellae and the condyles, and the mandibular jaw.

** Edward Wright Haile, ed., Jamestown Narratives (Champlain, VA: Roundhouse, 1998), 505.

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