Jamestown Cannibalism: America's Founders' Dark Secret Uncovered

By Nina Sen , May 02, 2013 05:41 PM EDT

Archeologists say they have uncovered evidence early settlers in Jamestown resorted to cannibalism.

Scientists say the bones of a 14-year-old girl show evidence of cannibalism among residents of the first colony in the United States. The bones show markings similar to that of cutting into meat in both the skull and tibia after death. 

"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. 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," Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the remains , said, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Researchers say the cuts to the girl were very amateurish and hesitant, as if the person doing so was not a skilled butcher. Additionally, the cuts may have been made by a woman as most of the residents who remained were female.  

The remains of the girl, nicknamed Jane by the researchers, were found in the former site of James Fort, Virginia. James Fort, founded in 1607, was the earliest part of the Jamestown colony. Experts say the winter between 1609-1610 was known as the starving time as settlers had very limited access to food.

About 100 early Jamestown settlers came over in 1607. Faced with new diseases, drought and starvation, their numbers dwindled to 38 within the first year. By the winter of 1609, the few remaining settlers were under siege from Native Americans and had little resources left.

References to rampant cannibalism have been made during that time in books and journals but this is the first clear evidence scientists have found of the act.

"These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used," Owsley added.

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