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Forensic analysis of 17th-century human remains at Jamestown, Va., reveals evidence of survival cannibalism

Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, presented today a forensic analysis of 17th-century human remains proving that survival cannibalism took place in historic Jamestown. The findings answer a long-standing question among historians about the occurrence of cannibalism at Jamestown during the deadly winter of 1609–1610 known as the “starving time”—a period during which about 80 percent of the colonists died. The announcement was made with chief archeologist William Kelso from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project at Preservation Virginia, and historian James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg; each expert provided context about the discovery and the history of the site.

Owsley has worked closely with Kelso and his team of archaeologists since 1996, examining skeletal remains to help researchers understand the lives of individual colonial settlers in the Chesapeake. This particular incomplete human skull and tibia (shin bone) were excavated by Jamestown archeologists in 2012 as part of a 20-year excavation of James Fort. The remains were unusual due to their location and extensive fragmentation, so Kelso approached the Smithsonian’s forensic anthropologist for a comprehensive analysis.


This photo shows a forensic facial reconstruction produced by StudioEIS of Brooklyn, N.Y. in consultation with Smithsonian researcher based on human remains excavated in James Fort, Jamestown, Va. by William Kelso, chief archeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. (All photos by Don Hurlbert)

Owsley and his research team identified a number of features on the skull and tibia that indicated the individual was cannibalized. Four shallow chops to the forehead represent a failed first attempt to open the skull. The back of the head was then struck by a series of deep, forceful chops from a small hatchet or cleaver. The final blow split the cranium open. Sharp cuts and punctures mark the sides and bottom of the mandible, reflecting efforts to remove tissue from the face and throat using a knife.


This photo shows 17th-century human remains that were excavated from James Fort, Jamestown, Va., by William Kelso, chief archeologist at Jamestown Rediscovery Project, and analyzed by Douglas Owsley, division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

“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,” said Owsley. “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.”

JR3081 human mandible

This photo shows four shallow chops to an incomplete skull excavated in James Fort, Jamestown, Va., by William Kelso, chief archeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

Through specialized scientific analyses, Smithsonian scientists determined details about the life and story of this 14-year-old girl from England. By analyzing the dental development of the third molar and the growth stage of her shin bone, the research team determined that “Jane” was approximately 14 years old when she died. The cause of death could not be determined from the remains, estimated to be less than 10 percent of the complete skeleton.

Through a combination of digital and medical technologies, Smithsonian researchers led the effort to reconstruct the girl’s likeness through forensic facial reconstruction. After scanning the incomplete remains of the fragmented skull with the museum’s CT scanner, a virtual model of the skull was pieced together digitally. This digital rendering was sent to the Medical Modeling company to print a three-dimensional replica of the reconstructed skull. Finally, StudioEIS, in Brooklyn, N.Y., worked with Smithsonian scientists to create a forensic facial reconstruction of the girl’s likeness.

On May 3, the facial reconstruction will be on display in the National Museum of Natural History’s popular “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake” exhibition, alongside other materials and information about Smithsonian forensic science. The skeletal remains will be on display at Historic Jamestowne near the discovery site on Jamestown Island.


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  • Janinthebx

    Horrible. I don’t even want to imagine what they underwent.

  • How was anyone able to determine that the girl was dead when
    she received these blows? It could be a
    possible cause of death. If she was dead
    when the suffered the injuries, how was it able to be determined that it was a
    tool that left the injuries rather than an animal? The injuries do appear to be inflicted by a
    hatchet, but is that definitive? I find
    it hard to believe that anyone living during that time, particularly a settler,
    would have no experience butchering an animal.
    Back in the days before grocery stores if you didn’t grow it, you killed
    it yourself (with few exceptions). I
    also understand that the cranium may be a large part of the body, but it does
    not appear to be a meaty one. We’d have
    to assume that more meaty parts of the body had already been eaten before
    brains and insides would be seen as palatable.
    Is there any way to verify that other parts of the body were eaten
    before attempting to enter the brain?

  • Jenna Turney

    Just another thought….Perhaps this was the work (cannibalism) of just one person. Perhaps that person stole into the night and robbed the grave, just taking what he or she could get away with fast.

    • whiteroses

      There’s some evidence that cannibalism was widespread. One man was hung for cannibalizing his pregnant wife. The reason why this discovery is so significant is because the cannibalism was thought to be exaggerated- propaganda to promote the interests of the Virginia Company back in England.

  • ladayjhia


  • lilred

    no we are not apes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Julie

    Did they kill and eat people or eat the dead? Either way its horrible, but im just wondering if they have any ideas.

    • whiteroses

      They think that this victim (“Jane”, as she’s called) was eaten after her death. This is mostly because of the marks on her skeleton. Her head showed no evidence of massive trauma, and the cuts on her bones would have shown defensive markings if she hadn’t already been dead.

  • It would have been more interesting to read why people were starving in a place that benefits from a very favorable climate and where natural resources are abundant, rather then to see a reconstruction of the girl, which has nothing to do with science or research but only with the obscene modern culture of image.

    • whiteroses

      A very favorable climate?

      I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. I’ve lived in Tidewater Virginia (less than 40 mins away from Jamestown) most of my life. It’s miserable in summer, what with the mosquitos and all, and winters can be harsh. We won’t even talk about hurricane season. Add all that with the fact that Jamestown’s original colonists were woefully unprepared for the task of settlement, and you have a recipe for disaster. Most of them were referred to as “gentlemen”. It’s no great shock they didn’t know how to farm.

    • Berta Horst

      Where, exactly do you live, that you would make that statement about favorable conditions?

  • Dr. David Rodríguez

    Friends, a detail escapes you: it was a young and pretty girl … why not eat a little old, less useful for the community? They preferred to eat a pretty young ….? 100% need?

    • David

      Sorry….for the “it”

      forgiveness snuck one “it” was inadvertently….(…) was a ….(…) you know

    • whiteroses

      She’s the first victim we’ve found. I don’t think it has a thing to do with her looks.

  • Gordon Redtail

    There are several hypocrisies that emerge from this “discovery.” One is the immediate cover that western anthros and archeologists attempt to provide for this practice by labeling it “survival cannibalism.” When Columbus, and later Franciscus de Vitoria, Edward Coke, and their successors, developed and applied legal justifications for the waging of “just war” against indigenous peoples, “evidence” of cannibalism was on the top of the list. The coining of the term “survival cannibalism” provides a Eurocentric shield to suggest that the Jamestown folks were still culturally superior to the Powahtans around therm, but that the English invaders only resorted to cannibalism as a last resort “to survive.” Any reasonable person would have done the same, right? The resulting implication is that he Indians, on the other hand, were permanently mired in a culturally and spiritually inferior condition (reportedly engaging in cannibalism on a regular basis), requiring remediation (or extermination, whichever is easier) by the invaders to achieve the European stage of “civilization.” Besides, beneficiaries in contemporary U.S. settler society should be thankful for this aberration of “survival cannibalism.” Without it, where would the United States be today?

    And they had no choice? Really? As other commentators have noted, the invaders had a number of choices, one of which is glaringly obvious to indigenous peoples. I am certain that if the English had communicated to Powhatan that they intended to return to England and never return, the indigenous people would not only hav released them from their fort, but would have supplied them with the food and provisions necessary for their return trip to England.

    • whiteroses

      Your hypothesis is interesting. It assumes, though, that the Indians weren’t smart enough to recognize the fact that canoes wouldn’t get the settlers back to England. The Powhatans wanted them to leave (based on my research), but there was a tremendous climate of mistrust between the Powhatans and the settlers at that point. Powhatan was a canny leader. He would have recognized that it would have been much easier to simply let the settlers kill themselves, burn the fort to the ground, and act as though they never existed than it would have been to give the settlers provisions the Indians couldn’t have afforded to lose. He also would have had no guarantee that they would actually leave. He had no reason to trust them, and say what you will about Powhatan, he was no fool.

      Don’t forget- it was winter when all this happened. The Indians didn’t have the crops to spare any more than the English did, and any leader with any sense is going to be far more interested with feeding his own people than offering any help to an invading force (and yes, I say invading, because that’s how you’re viewed when relations with an indigenous people deteriorate).

  • Peter Terry

    Did Dr. Owsley really say what the BBC reports?

    “It’s somebody doing what they had to do,” said Dr Owsley of the cannibalism.

    It is one thing to report the behavior of our ancestors…it is another to state that they had no choice but to act in that manner. If there were only 60 left out of the original 300, it is self-evident that 240 had a choice, and their choice was not to resort to cannibalism…or do so and still die. There are some things that are worse than death.

    • Christophe Monch

      This is really a sad story and I agree with you it seems Dr Owsley gives us its statements and does not report as he should do. But if you say that then you can not say the 240 other people had a chocie because we do not know and only next studies will tell us.
      More over I will add to the debate we can and should not judge from our comfortable place, it is too easy to say we would not have done the same thing if we were at their place. All what we know is that this sad story happened (as it did many times in other places) and they had to take a decision: eat or die…

    • whiteroses

      Cannibalism is terrible. But when you’re starving with no hope of rescue, when your home is surrounded by hostile Indians who would have killed you if you left the fort, and if most of the people around you had already died, who’s to say what you’d do?

  • Ron Helton

    Well, know we know what happened to my great (many times removed) (pun intended) aunt Maggie.