The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History held a press conference on Wednesday to announce breaking, albeit gruesome, colonial news: Evidence of the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old British girl in Jamestown, Va., in 1609.
Forensic anthropologists say marks found on the girl's bones, uncovered during a recent archaeological excavation, suggest her brain, among other parts, was eaten by starving settlers.
“The chops to the forehead are very tentative, very incomplete,” Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the institute, said on Wednesday. “Then, the body was turned over, and there were four strikes to the back of the head, one of which was the strongest and split the skull in half. A penetrating wound was then made to the left temple, probably by a single-sided knife, which was used to pry open the head and remove the brain.”
The cause of the girl's death remains unclear, the researchers said. But according the Smithsonian, it is the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown.
“Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there,” Owsley said. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”
"It’s long been speculated that the harsh conditions faced by the colonists of Jamestown might have made them desperate enough to eat other humans—and perhaps even commit murder to do so," the Smithsonian magazine noted.
Owsley and his team conducted a CT scan of the bones, which were discovered last summer. Cut marks on the jaw, face and forehead of the skull, along with those on the shinbone, he said, are "telltale signs of cannibalism." And the skillfulness of the cut marks compared with those on her head suggest two or more butchers, he said.
He suspects there will be more cannibalized bodies to come.
“It’s fairly convincing, now that we see this one, that this wasn’t the only case,” Owsley said. “There are other examples mentioned here and there in the literature. So the only question is: Where are the rest of the bodies?”