In one case, a man killed, “salted” and began eating his pregnant wife. Both Percy and Capt. John Smith, the colony’s most famous leader, documented the account in their writings. The man was later executed.
“One amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed, as he well deserved,” Smith wrote. “Now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado’d (barbecued), I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.”
Archaeologists at Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia were somewhat skeptical of the stories of cannibalism in the past because there was no solid proof, until now.
“Historians have questioned, well did it happen or not happen?” Owsley said. “And this is very convincing evidence that it did.”
Owsley has been working with William Kelso, the chief archaeologist at Jamestown, since their first burial discovery in 1996.
The remains of the girl, discovered in 2012, mark the fourth set of human remains uncovered at Jamestown outside of graves. Researchers named her “Jane” to give her an identity for a book explaining her story. Her remains were found in a cellar at a site that had been filled with trash, including bones of horses and other animals consumed in desperation, according to archaeologists.
Owsley analyzed the girl’s remains and how the body had been dismembered, including chops to the front and back of the head. It was clear to Owsley there were signs of cannibalism.
“It is the evidence found on those bones that put it within the context of this time period,” he said. “This does represent a clear case of dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption.”
It was the work of someone not skilled at butchering, Owsley said. There was a sense of desperation.
The bones show a bizarre attempt to open the skull. Animal brains and facial tissue would be considered accepted and desirable meat in the 17th century, Owsley said.
The human remains will be placed on display at Jamestown to explain the horrid conditions early settlers faced. At the Smithsonian, curators will display a digital reconstruction of the girl’s face in an exhibit about life at Jamestown.