Meet Jane, the 14-Year-Old Eaten When the First British Settlers in America Turned to Cannibalism; as Forensic Experts Piece Together the Macabre Secrets of Starving Pioneers Besieged by Red Indians

Daily Mail (London), May 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Meet Jane, the 14-Year-Old Eaten When the First British Settlers in America Turned to Cannibalism; as Forensic Experts Piece Together the Macabre Secrets of Starving Pioneers Besieged by Red Indians


Byline: by Annabel Venning

SHE HAD arrived in America only a few months earlier. After a stormy 16-week voyage across the Atlantic, Jane, a 14-year-old girl from southern England, would have been relieved to reach land when she scrambled ashore at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America, in August 1609.

But any sense of salvation was to be short-lived. For, soon afterwards, the colony began to starve. Food was already scarce when seven ships -- including the one Jane travelled on -- arrived with another 300 settlers to add to the 100 or so trying to eke out an existence in the swampy outpost.

There was simply not enough to feed all the extra mouths. The settlers had expected the newcomers' ships to be laden with provisions, but they brought almost nothing.

A drought -- Virginia's worst in 800 years -- had decimated their crops and the local Powhatan Indians had become hostile, refusing to supply them with food. They then began to besiege the fort, killing anyone who ventured beyond its confines with their arrows and clubs.

Many settlers had already died from disease. Now, as the cold weather set in, hunger claimed more lives. That harsh winter of 1609 came to be known as the Starving Time. Parents watched helplessly as their children grew weaker and finally succumbed to starvation or disease. In the crowded conditions, dysentery was rife.

Jane died within months of her arrival. She was buried in the Virginian soil, 3,000 miles from her homeland.

But she did not rest in peace.

Within days, her fellow settlers had, it is believed, dug up the body and, taking a sharp knife, begun dismembering it.

First, they attacked her skull, the cuts tentative at first, but then more forceful, until it split open. The brains and tongue were hacked out, and cheek meat and muscle stripped away. Whoever did it was not experienced in butchery, but utterly desperate for food. Flesh was also cleaved from Jane's legs.

Did these starving grave robbers cook the flesh first? Or did they simply eat it raw, violent hunger overcoming their revulsion? Afterwards, the skull and bones were tossed into a cellar, where they have lain for more than 400 years, among the bones of dogs and horses, until they were discovered last summer by archaeologists at Jamestown.

For centuries, historians have suspected that, during the Starving Time, the Jamestown settlers resorted to cannibalism to survive. But though the grisly deed is referred to in several contemporary accounts, until now there has been no scientific proof that it occurred.

Earlier this month, anthropologist Dr Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who has been analysing the bones dug up last summer, has announced that the knife marks and damage on the mutilated skull and severed leg bones are evidence of 'survival cannibalism' at Jamestown.

Scientific study suggests Jane -- as the victim has been named -- was aged 14. Before arriving in Jamestown, she had lived in a coastal area of Southern England and her diet had been high in protein, meaning she was probably the daughter of a gentleman or a servant in a wealthy household. Using facial reconstruction techniques, Dr Owsley's team has created an uncannily lifelike model of Jane's head and shoulders.

Looking at her face, it is poignant to think that this young girl set out from England, with her parents or employer, full of high hopes for a new life in the land of plenty that they had been promised.

Virginia was thought to be full of minerals and riches, with vast tracts of unclaimed territory there for the taking.

Colonists hoped they would discover the sort of riches that the Spanish had found in South America and perhaps even a passage through to the Pacific Ocean.

FUELLED by dreams of wealth and lofty ideals of spreading Christianity and English laws to the natives, 104 men, many of them the younger sons of gentry, departed England in December 1606. …

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