The Cannibal Colony

A fresh excavation at Jamestown uncovered a body that reveals that life in the settlement was even grimmer than previously thought:

[Anthropologist Douglas] Owsley speculates that this particular Jamestown body belonged to a child who likely arrived in the colony during 1609 on one of the resupply ships.

She was either a maidservant or the child of a gentleman, and due to the high-protein diet indicated by his team’s isotope analysis of her bones, he suspects the latter. The identity of whoever consumed her is entirely unknown, and Owsley guesses there might have been multiple cannibals involved, because the cut marks on her shin indicate a more skilled butcher than whoever dismembered her head.

It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death. There’s no evidence of murder, and Owsley suspects that this was a case in which hungry colonists simply ate the one remaining food available to them, despite cultural taboos. “I don’t think that they killed her, by any stretch,” he says. “It’s just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to.”

Dana Goodyear explains why the Donner party’s cannibalism is well-known but Jamestown’s isn’t:

The difference between the tale of the Jamestown colonists and that of the Donner Party is transmission: in 1847, a noisy newspaper culture reported on every available detail; two hundred and thirty-seven years earlier, there was no domestic press. There was only word of mouth.