Virginia Settlers Resorted to Cannibalism in Harsh 1609 Winter

Jamestown Pioneers Dismembered Girl Named Jane, 14

getty images

By Reuters

Published May 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Settlers at Virginia’s Jamestown Colony resorted to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter of 1609, dismembering and consuming a 14-year-old English girl, the U.S. Smithsonian Institution reported on Wednesday.

A recent excavation at the historic site revealed not just the remains of dogs, cats and horses eaten by settlers during the cold “Starving Time” of that year, but also the bones of a girl known to researchers simply as “Jane.”

This is the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent colony in the Americas, the Smithsonian said on its website.

The institution is the biggest museum and research complex in the world with 19 museums and galleries, most of them in Washington. It also includes the National Zoo.

“Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened here,” said Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owls, who analyzed the bones after they were found by Preservation Virginia, a private nonprofit group.

“Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it’s clear that this body was dismembered for consumption,” Owls said in the online announcement at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Starving-Settlers-in-Jamestown-Colony-Resorted-to-Eating-A-Child-205472161.html .

It is unknown whether “Jane” was murdered or died of natural causes, whether several people or just one person participated in what the announcement called “the butchering.”

“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” Owls said. “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.”

The brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles appear to have been eaten, with the brain probably consumed first because it decomposes soon after death, the announcement said.

Scholars have speculated that extreme drought, hostile relations with the local Powhatan Confederacy and a lost supply ship made the Jamestown colonists desperate enough to eat humans. Writings had suggested it, but no hard physical evidence existed until now.

William Keelson, lead archeologist on the project, and his team discovered the girl’s remains last summer.

“We found a deposit of refuse that contained butchered horse and dog bones,” Keelson said. “That was only done in times of extreme hunger. As we excavated, we found human teeth and then a partial human skull.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.