Mass grave at Jamestowne Historic National Park in Virginia. (CC/Sarah Stierch)
The winter of 1609-1610 was harsh for the colonists at Jamestown. About 130 people inhabited the fort in November, and only 60 remained by spring.
The partial skeleton of a teenage girl was found last August in a part of the fort still under archaeological excavation. The Washington Post reports that the skull, lower jaw and leg bone have numerous marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife -- what researchers say is evidence of cannibalism at the settlement.
Historians have long believed, based on written accounts, that colonists resorted to cannibalism that winter. Reports of cannibalism during the "starving time" include corpses being exhumed and eaten and the mysterious disappearance of foraging colonists. One colonist was executed for killing his wife and salting her flesh.
But the remains present the first physical evidence of cannibalism in New World colonies. “The person is truly figuring it out as they go,” said Douglas Owsley, a physical anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution.
Several chops to the skull were made before the body was rolled over and a cut made it all the way through. The tibia bone is broken with a single blow, as one might butcher a cow.
Owsley and his collaborator, Kari Bruwelheide, created a reconstruction of what the girl, probably a maidservant or possibly the daughter of a colonist, would have looked like.
The bones, the reconstruction of her head, and the story were presented Wednesday at an event at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. They will be displayed at Jamestown.