This semester in my British Colonial America course we read Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. At one point in the book Morgan described cases of cannibalism in the early years of the Jamestown settlement. Here is the pertinent quote, from page 73:
[In Jamestown we find] the only authentic examples of cannibalism witnessed in Virginia. One provident man chops up his wife and salts down the pieces. Others dig up graves to ear corpses.
Indeed, during the so-called “starving time” in colonial Jamestown (winter of 1609-1610) there are at least six accounts of people describing acts of cannibalism.
According to this article in The Washington Post, we now have some skeletal remains that lend support to these accounts of cannibalism. Here is a taste:
The proof comes in the form of fragments of a skeleton of a girl, about age 14, found in a cellar full of debris in the fort on the James River that sheltered the starving colonists. The skull, lower jaw and leg bone — all that remain — have the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife.
“Historians have to decide whether this type of thing happened,” said Owsley, who has examined thousands of skeletal remains, both archaeological and forensic. “I think that it did. We didn’t see anybody eat this flesh. But it’s very strong evidence.”
James Horn, head of research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a historian on the colony, said the discovery “adds a significant confirmation to what was reported to have occurred at Jamestown.” Further, it’s the only physical evidence of cannibalism of Europeans in any New World colony, although, as with Jamestown, there are written accounts of the practice in others.
“I tend to be sparing in the use of words like ‘unique.’ But I think this is one of those finds that literally is,” Horn said.
About 300 people inhabited the fort in November 1609. By spring, there were only 60. The girl, most likely a maidservant but possibly the daughter of a colonist, was one of the casualties.
Her bones were unearthed last August as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project begun in 1994. About 18 inches of fill remain in the cellar, so it’s possible more of her skeleton will be found. Enough of her skull exists, however, to imagine what she might have looked like, using CT scanning, computer graphics, sculpture materials and demographic data.
While I was doing some research for this post I came across Rachel Hermann’s 2011 William and Mary Quarterly essay “The ‘tragiccall historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” and her 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “On Becoming a Cannibal Girl.”
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