The Salt
4:40 pm
Wed May 1, 2013

Bones Tell Tale Of Desperation Among The Starving At Jamestown

Originally published on Wed May 1, 2013 5:48 pm

"First they ate their horses, and then fed upon their dogs and cats, as well as rats, mice and snakes."

So says James Horn of the historical group Colonial Williamsburg, paraphrasing an account by colony leader George Percy of what conditions were like for the hundreds of men and women stranded in Jamestown, Va., with little food in the dead of winter in 1609.

They even ate their shoes. And, apparently, at least one person.

Scientists who have recovered human bones from the English colony at Jamestown announced Wednesday that they show the marks of cannibalism.

It's long been debated whether the colonists resorted to eating each other during "the starving time" of 1609 to 1610. The weather was harsh, and the hostile Indians were even harsher. Only 60 colonists survived that winter. This new finding would be the first hard evidence of cannibalism.

Last summer, Jamestown's chief archaeologist, William Kelso, dug up a human skull and a few other bones, along with some food remains. But these bones were different from others he'd found.

"The damage to the skull, and finding it with the other food remains, brought on serious thoughts that this was, indeed, evidence of survival cannibalism," Kelso says.

Kelso took the bones to the Smithsonian's Douglas Owsley, a renowned forensic anthropologist who has solved numerous criminal cases, as well as archaeological mysteries, based on human bones. Owsley determined that the Jamestown bones belonged to a girl, aged 14. They don't know anything about her, but have given her a name: Jane.

Owsley found numerous cut marks on the cranium and jaw, all apparently done after the girl had died. "There are clear chops to the forehead. They are very closely spaced," Owsley says.

These vertical cuts are evenly spaced and regular, and thus, he says, not the kind of wound you see in a struggle, but more likely made on a corpse. "There are four chops to the back of the cranium," Owsley says — apparently, they were made as the assailant was trying to open her skull. It was done in a very unskillful way, Owsley notes. Then, there was a final chop that completely fractured the skull open.

Owsley also found marks on the jaw that looked like the result of sawing with a sharp object, and also compression fractures made by a knife point. On the only fragment of leg bone the researchers had, there were more cut marks.

Forensic scientists usually can differentiate marks left by gnawing animals from those made by sharp instruments. Along with the written accounts, Owsley says the evidence points to cannibalism. "Given the context of all of this put together, and the multiple, multiple cuts," he says, "this is not anything that is done out of spite or vengeance or anything like that. It is, I think, a very clear intent."

The team has glued the skull back together and also sculpted a re-creation of what Jane would have looked like in the flesh, which they displayed today at the press conference: English, high cheekbones, regular features, pretty.

Smithsonian anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide was on the team. "When you have evidence of an event that's written down and recorded and talked about by survivors 400 years ago, it added weight to history. I mean, it truly is kind of a special kind of case," she said.

It's special also because archaeologists are skeptical about claims of cannibalism. Jonathan Haas at the Field Museum in Chicago says "cannibalism science" demands several types of evidence. The opening of the skull and the historical accounts are two good ones, but he says the other cut marks don't prove cannibalism, but only severe violence done to a girl's body.

Haas says scientists need a suite of several lines of evidence, all pointing to the same conclusion. "If I find cut marks showing the defleshing from the long bones, if I see cracking of the long bones, if I see cooking, then I can begin to much more definitively say that there was cannibalism being practiced," Haas says. He says archaeologically, more proof is still needed.

Given that this was England's first successful colony in the New World, and the nature of the claim, it's likely that the cannibalism finding will generate a lively scientific debate.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Scientists say they have hard evidence that settlers of the first English colony in America may have resorted to cannibalism to survive. They've recovered human bones from Jamestown, Virginia, that show signs of that. Written accounts from the colonists describe cannibalism during the starving time of 1609 to 1610, but until now, no one had the bones to prove it. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on what scientists think happened to a young girl at Jamestown. They call her Jane.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Of the hundreds of colonists living inside the Jamestown fort in 1609, only 60 survived that winter. The weather was harsh, and the hostile Indians were even harsher. At a press conference today at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, James Horn of the historical group Colonial Williamsburg quoted George Percy, leader of the colony at the time.

JAMES HORN: First, they ate their horses and then fed upon their dogs and cats, as well as rats, mice and snakes.

JOYCE: They even ate their shoes, and it seems one person. Last summer, Jamestown's chief archeologist, William Kelso, dug up a human skull and a few other bones, along with some food remains. These bones were different from others he'd found.

WILLIAM KELSO: The damage to the skull and finding it with the other food remains brought on serious thoughts that this was indeed evidence of survival cannibalism.

JOYCE: Kelso took the bones to the Smithsonian's Doug Owsley, a renowned forensic anthropologist. Owsley determined that they belonged to a girl, aged 14. They don't know anything about her, but they have given her a name: Jane. Owsley found numerous cut marks on the cranium and jaw, all apparently done after the girl had died.

DOUG OWSLEY: There are clear chops to the forehead. They are very closely spaced.

JOYCE: Vertical cuts evenly spaced, not wounds usually made in a struggle, but more likely made on a corpse.

OWSLEY: There are four chops to the back of the cranium.

JOYCE: The assailant was trying to open her skull. In a very unskillful way, Owsley notes.

OWSLEY: There is one final chop that shows the complete fracturing.

JOYCE: It split the skull in half. Owsley also found marks on the jaw that looked like sawing and fractures made by a knife point and more cut marks on a leg bone. With the written accounts, Owsley says the evidence now points to cannibalism.

OWSLEY: Given the context of all of this put together and the multiple, multiple cuts, this is not anything that is done out of spite or vengeance or anything like that, it is I think a very clear intent.

JOYCE: The team has glued the skull back together and also sculpted a recreation of what Jane would have looked like in the flesh, which they displayed today at the press conference - English, high cheekbones, pretty. Smithsonian anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide was on the team.

KARI BRUWELHEIDE: When you have evidence of an event that's written down and recorded and talked about by survivors 400 years ago, I mean, it added weight to history. I mean, it truly is kind of a special type of case.

JOYCE: Special also because archeologists are skeptical about claims of cannibalism. Archeologist Jonathan Haas, at the Field Museum in Chicago, says cannibalism science demands several types of evidence. The opening of the skull and the historical accounts are two good ones, but he says the other cut marks do not prove cannibalism, only violence to a girl's body.

JONATHAN HAAS: If I find cut marks showing the defleshing from the long bones, if I see cracking of the long bones, if I see cooking, then I can begin to much more definitively say that there was cannibalism being practiced.

JOYCE: Given that this was England's first successful colony in the New World and the nature of the claim, it's likely that this finding will generate a lively scientific debate. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program