Jamestown Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism

UNITED STATES

Jamestown Colonists Resorted to Cannibalism
Archaeologists have discovered the first physical evidence of cannibalism by desperate English colonists driven by hunger during the Starving Time of 1609-1610 at Jamestown, Virginia—the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

British explorer John Smith (hands on hips) landed near what is today Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Just two years later, the Virginia Colony (based at Jamestown) endured a desperate period of conflict, starvation . . . and cannibalism. Smith, injured during a conflict with indigenous Powhatans, had already left Jamestown when the "Starving Time" began in 1609. Illustration by E. Boyd Smith, courtesy New York Public Library

Sunnier times in Jamestown . . . British explorer John Smith (hands on hips) landed near what is today Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Just two years later, the Virginia Colony (based at Jamestown) endured a desperate period of conflict, starvation . . . and cannibalism. Smith, injured during a conflict with indigenous Powhatans, had already left Jamestown when the “Starving Time” began in 1609.
Illustration by E. Boyd Smith, courtesy New York Public Library

Discussion Ideas:

  • Watch our video “Cutmarks”, in which Dr. Jackie Eng discovers cutmarks on skeletons from the ancient Samdzong culture in Nepal. Can students identify similarities between the cutmarks on the Nepalese skeleton and the cutmarks described in the NG News article on “Jane”? Differences?
    • Similarities
      • Archaeologists say both sets of cutmarks were made post-mortem. This means the cuts were made after the person was dead.
      • Both Jane and the Samdzong skeletons had cutmarks on their lower leg (shin).
    • Differences
      • Jane’s skull and shin are the only evidence of de-fleshing in Jamestown. Archaeologists in Nepal uncovered multiple skeletons with cutmarks in what appears to be a burial site.
      • Archaeologists studied Jane’s skull, and discovered cutmarks on her forehead and lower jaw. Archaeologists did not report cutmarks on the Samdzong skulls, but they did report cutmarks on the skeletons’ ribs and arms (humerus).
  • Archaeologists studying Jane think that most of the cutmarks on her skeleton were not made by professional butchers, people used to cutting meat. They describe Jane’s cutmarks as attempts by starving, desperate colonists to get at the “meat” of Jane’s corpse—her brain, throat, and jaw tissue. Archaeologists in Nepal are much more hesitant to identify cutmarks as evidence of cannibalism. “Clearly there’s an attempt to modify the corpse in some fashion,” Dr. Mark Aldenderfer says. “But we don’t know what that process is right now.” With very similar evidence, why do students think one set of archaeologists is more confident in attributing a set of cutmarks to cannibalism than the other?
    • The archaeologists studying Jane’s skeleton have had almost a year to study the bones using high-tech research equipment. The archaeologists in Nepal had just discovered the skeletons days earlier, and had not even removed any samples to study in the lab. They simply haven’t had the time or opportunity to do the detailed research necessary to support any scientific conclusions about the cutmarks. “Jackie won’t call it de-fleshing,” the video says, “until she’s investigated every bone.”
    • There is a long recorded history of the “Starving Time” in Jamestown. The NG News article says there are “five historical accounts written by or about Jamestown colonists that reference cannibalism.” Jane’s cutmarks support these well-known claims. The Samdzong people of Nepal did not leave a written record of their culture, which thrived 1,500 years ago. The discovery of the cutmarks was the first evidence of possible de-fleshing.
  • Eng and Aldenderfer eventually did reach the conclusion that the Samdzong corpses had been de-fleshed, as reported in this NG News article. The archaeologists say the de-fleshed skeletons do not show evidence of cannibalism, however. “When you’re going for meat, you process a skeleton in a very different way than if you were trying to strip the flesh off,” explains Aldenderfer. Do students think Aldenderfer’s description of evidence of cannibalism supports the idea that colonists cannibalized Jane’s corpse? Why or why not?
    • It definitely supports the evidence for cannibalism in Jamestown. “In cannibalism, the base of the skull is often smashed [to get at the brains],” Aldenderfer says. That is precisely how Jane’s skull was cracked open. “They were clearly interested in cheek meat, muscles of the face, tongue and brain,” says anthropologist Doug Owsley, who studied Jane.

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