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Look Into The Face Of Cannibalism In Colonial Jamestown

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A facial recreation of the girl, known as "Jane," stands next to the remains of her skull.
Armando Trull
A facial recreation of the girl, known as "Jane," stands next to the remains of her skull.

Smithsonian experts investigating the remains of a 14-year-old Jamestown colonist say they have found evidence that the girl's skull was cut open to remove the brain — the earliest evidence to date of cannibalism performed in European colonies in the Americas.

Douglas Owsley, the head of the physical anthropology division at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, presented the findings Wednesday.

There were numerous cuts and sawing marks around the skull and facial area of the girl, believed to have died between 1609 and 1610. The cuts indicate the head was removed and tissue from throat and tongue removed. The methods of removal and the evidence of several blows to the skull are consistent with butchering efforts after death.

The damage to the skull and the fact that it was found with other food remains are considered strong evidence of survival cannibalism.

"The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609–1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl’s body,” said Owsley. "The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains. Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption."

Researchers utilized a CT scanner to create a virtual model of the skull, from which they then created a 3D model. They then looped in a studio from Brooklyn, N.Y., to create the facial reconstruction on display in the museum.

Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, located along the James River near current-day Williamsburg, Va. About 80 percent of settlers died during the same period as the girl, known as the "starving time."

"Only 60 of the original 300 settlers survived," says Dr. Jim Horn. "They were described as looking like skeletons."

The facial recreation of the girl now known as "Jane" is on display in the National Museum of Natural History's "Written in Bone" exhibit.

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