2 May 2013

First English settlers 'resorted to cannibalism'

1:28 pm on 2 May 2013

Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution have found evidence that the first English settlers in America resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The remains of a teenage girl discovered at the Jamestown colony in the state of Virginia, show attempts to remove flesh for human consumption.

Scientists found unusual cuts consistent with butchering for meat on human bones dumped in a rubbish pit.

The skull and tibia of a girl in James Fort, Virginia, were excavated from the dump last year.

James Fort, founded in 1607, was the earliest part of the Jamestown colony.

"The evidence is absolutely consistent with dismemberment and de-fleshing of this body," said

Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Written documents had previously suggested the desperate colonists resorted to cannibalism - but the BBC reports the discovery of the girl's bones offers the first scientific proof.

Smithsonian researchers believe she became food for a community struggling to survive the harsh winter of 1609-10, known to historians as the Starving Time.

"There were numerous chops and cuts - chops to the forehead, chops to the back of the skull and also a puncture to the left side of the head that was used to essentially pry off that side," Dr Owsley said. "The purpose was to extract the brain."

The tongue and facial tissue were removed.

"The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption," he said. "These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used."

The Starving Time

Little is known about the girl apart from her age and the fact she was English. Her origin has been confirmed by comparative studies on bones in Cambridge.

Further analysis indicates she was at one time well-nourished and ate a lot of meat, a diet consistent with richer classes.

Researchers also have a sense of what she looked like thanks to digital and forensic facial reconstruction.

The BBC reports the Starving Time was one of the most horrific periods of early colonial history.

The James Fort settlers were under siege from the indigenous Indian population and had insufficient food to last the winter.

First they ate their horses, then dogs, cats, rats, mice and snakes. Some, to satisfy their cruel hunger, ate the leather of their shoes.

As the weeks turned to months, nothing was spared to maintain life. How many of the growing numbers of dead were cannibalised is unknown. But it is almost certain the girl was not the only victim.

Relief came in the form of Lord De La Warr, who sailed into the settlement with food and new colonists. After six months of siege and starvation, only 60 of the original 300 settlers had survived.