Cannibalism in Jamestown Justin Chan

Jamestown, Virginia, 1607

Colonists arrived to the new world on the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and the Discovery, carrying along with them many high expectations. The settlement, sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, sought to gain profit from expansion through exports. The Anglican religion could also be spread to the natives of Virginia who appeared to have no religion. The history made at this settlement would affect us today, our customs, language, beliefs, and aspirations.

Jamestown Excavation

History Uncovered

The Jamestown Rediscovery was first funded in 1994 by Preservation Virginia. It wasn’t exactly easy, taking 10 years of negotiation to finally receive grant support. The 10-year archaeological dig was set to locate a lost fort and to open the discovery to the public.

This “lost fort” was built in 1607 by none other than Captain John Smith himself and the first settlers. Sadly, the fort sank into the James River, or as so is claimed by eyewitness accounts since 1837. George Percy, a settler of Jamestown, wrote of this fort being in the vicinity of a lone cypress tree 100 yards off the western shore of Jamestown Island. This statement appeared to be supported by erosion on the western shore and the existence of a concrete seawall built in 1900. Mysteriously, the National Park Service’s archaeological dig revealed no fort being in that area.

William Strachey, the Jamestown colony secretary journaled about “a pretty the middest” of the fort. This raised skepticism in Dr. William Kelso. William Strachey’s writing seems to suggest that the fort was not where most believed, but rather by a 17th-century brick church tower near the center of the original fort. The original fort would have contained a church. A second church being build in the same place was very likely. This is due to sacred ground commonly being kept as sacred ground.

The Jamestown Rediscovery has uncovered the remains of many settlers, however, they had not expected to uncover actual evidence of cannibalism. The team that which worked on the project were sorting through many remains. When taking a closer look at a skull of a certain set, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones made for an unusual finding. The markings were consistent with acts of butchering, such as would be made on animals that were butchered for food.

The Unusual Find


With only access to 1/10 of the skeleton, not much information was able to be discovered. Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, presents what they had indeed found. Using the shinbone they were able to identify the remains as a 14 year old girl, whom they named Jane. Using isotope studies of the third molar, high nitrogen content suggested a high-status family or possibly a maid of one. Elevated nitrogen levels indicate a large consumption of scarce and expensive protein. Based on the comparison of oxygen isotopes in her tooth and oxygen isotopes found in groundwater samples, researchers find that she was most likely from the southern coast of England. Carbon isotopes in her bones indicate a European diet, showing that Jane was not in Jamestown long before her death.

Facial Reconstruction of Jane

Multiple chop and cut marks were found on the girls skull, made by one or more assailants. Showing interest in cheek, facial muscles, tongue, and brain, whilst leaving the hair alone. Many more cuts, saw marks, and gouges along her lower jaw were made by a knife. This was an attempt to gain as much meat possible. The many markings are consistent with many other victims of cannibalism analyzed by Owsley himself.

Knife Markings on Jane's Lower Jaw

Four chop marks, closely spaced unto her forehead were attempts to split her skull open. Due to the chop marks being subtly controlled, Owsley can conclude that she was already dead at the time. A cleaver was then used to crack open the skull from the back.

Chop Marks On Jane's Frontal Bone
Cleaver Indentation on the Occipital Bone
Cannibalism on Tanna

Was This Unexpected?

Cannibalism, less commonly known as anthropophagy, has been proved to have existed as far back as 600,000 years. Large amounts of butchered human bones have been found in Neanderthal and other Paleolithic sites. There is even suggestion that cannibalism occurred in history for reasons other than food shortages, such as body removal before the existence of burial. It appears somewhere in nearly every time period.

Depictions of Neanderthal Cannibalism

Who would have thought that cannibalism would be found Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in America? Well... we already did. The uncovered remains were only the first found evidence of cannibalism, but has been seen accounted by many colonist first hand.

George Percy brings more perception to the way that colonist thought. There were already stories of cannibalism in the Americas by the natives who would “eate their enemies when they kill them, or any stranger if they take them.”

Cannibalism is in fact practiced by some Native tribes. Jesuits living with the Iroquois recorded cannibalistic acts, consuming defeated enemies in a way similar to torture. Rather than cannibalism occurring for gastronomic purposes, it was more commonly taboo such as purification rituals or enemy humiliation.

During the starving time of Jamestown, acts of cannibalism began to manifest. Colonist were suffering extreme hunger, diseases at swept through and reduced the population by 80 percent.

“A worlde of miseries ensewed as the Sequell will expresse unto yow, in so mutche thatt some to satisfye their hunger have robbed the store for the which I Caused them to be executed. Then haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce all was fishe thatt Came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger, as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather some Colde come by. And those beinge Spente and devoured some weare inforced to searche the woodes and to feede upon Serpentts and snakes and to digge the earthe for wylde and unknowne Rootes, where many of our men weare Cutt of and slayne by the Salvages. And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”

Human meat was not secondary action, here George Percy explains the consumption of dogs, cats, rats, mice, and nearly any fish. Percy justifies cannibalism, although horrible, as a necessary act due to the current situation Jamestown faced.

“If we Trewly Consider the diversety of miseries, mutenies, and famishmentts which have attended upon discoveries and plantacyons in theis our moderne Tymes, we shall nott fynde our plantacyon in Virginia to have Suffered aloane...The Spanyards plantacyon in the River of Plate and the streightes of Magelane Suffered also in so mutche thatt haveinge eaten upp all their horses to susteine themselves withal, Mutenies did aryse and growe amongste them, for the which the generall Diego Mendosa cawsed some of them to be executed, Extremety of hunger inforceinge others secrettly in the night to Cutt downe Their deade fellowes from of the gallowes and to bury them in their hungry Bowelles.”

Percy also reveals that during interim Presidency, he dealt with a man accused of killing, salting, and devouring his pregnant wife. The man in turn was sentenced to be hung by his thumbs with weights on his feet until confessing his crime of murder (rather than cannibalism). He confessed after 15 minutes. The man was burned alive. Another man became accustomed to the taste of human flesh. Being unable to hold himself from more human meat, he was, in turn, executed. Providing further evidence for a possible addictive effect of long pig (human meat, fun fact). Both of these were in addition to the freshly buried bodies being exhumed by colonist for food.

Reenactment of Colonist Strangling Wife, Searching for Body Parts, and Confession

George Percy writes one of five historical accounts of cannibalism, but the physical evidence had not appeared until the Jamestown rediscovery.

Starving Time

Beginning in 1607, relations with the Powhatan Natives were weak. Small trading opportunities were found. John Smith strengthened trade with Powhatan’s tribe when he became the colony’s leader in September 1608. They exchanged corn and other food for metal tools, beads, weapons, and more.

Colonist at Jamestown had never planned to grow their own food and intended to purely rely on trade with local Natives and imports from England. Rather than fertile soil, farmland, water access, or even hunting, the location of Jamestown was strictly chosen for defense. Many of the colonist had no farming experience of any kind.

It was difficult to rely on the shipments due to their sporadic arrivals. Tension built between colonist and local tribes. Powhatan always thought suspiciously of the English settlers, but continued their relationship in order to acquire guns and gunpowder. It toughened any form of alliance for trade.

Powhatan Tribe

In the fall of 1609, John Smith suffered a mysterious gunpowder explosion and returned to England. He never came back to Virginia.George Percy took over leadership and became interim President. An arrival of new ships produced more hungry people. This sent Jamestown into hunger. Already was there a drought causing food shortages for both Jamestown and the Powhatans. To make up for their own lack of food, Powhatans cut off trade with the colonist. Settlers were hungry and took food by force, angering the Powhatans. In response, the Powhatans lay siege to Jamestown, trapping them in their fort. Anytime a settler left the palisade, they risked being kidnapped or murdered. At this time all of Jamestown lacked any source of food.

The spread of disease began from the malnutrition and water contamination. Dysentery, typhoid, and scurvy reduced Jamestown to a population of 60 from their original several hundred. This was the beginning of the Starving Time lasting from winter 1609-1610. Settlers consumed any source of food they could find. Both drinking water and outhouse water ran through the same source. With the lack of trade, import, water, farms, hope, and 80 percent of the colonists, it’s not too difficult to see how they had succumb to cannibalism.


Created with images by jabbusch - "DSC01529" • jabbusch - "DSC01524" • jabbusch - "DSC01525" • Tony Fischer Photography - "Worship at Jamestowne, 1639 (and brief history)" • jabbusch - "DSC01526" • jabbusch - "DSC01528"

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