Digging Out My Cannibal Girl Hat


A reconstruction of the skull of a 14-year-old girl that researchers have named “Jane.”

I have some initial thoughts on new reports of cannibalism at Jamestown, so I’ve cross-posted them from my personal blog.

So, funny story. When I first submitted my article on cannibalism and the Starving Time at Jamestown to the William and Mary Quarterly, the piece strongly argued against any occurrence of cannibalism. When I got my readers’ reports back, Editor Chris Grasso pointed out that I didn’t really have the evidence to convincingly make that claim. He said that he’d accept the article only if I agreed to temper the argument—which was really fine with me because the main point of the essay was to ask why the stories of cannibalism mattered, not to argue for or against the existence of cannibalism in colonial Virginia.

And, yet, even after publishing the article, I remained a bit doubtful of the veracity of all those early reports of cannibalism. I came to the private conclusion that Jamestown colonists probably did eat the bodies of a dead Indian and those of hanged men, but to my mind the story of the salted wife seemed completely exaggerated.

Lo and behold, a slew of recent news articles have appeared following the discovery of a 14-year-old Virginia girl whose bones apparently “prove” the existence of cannibalism in Jamestown.

And here I am, still decidedly skeptical.

To be sure, some of these articles offer convincing evidence for cannibalism. The point that “Jane’s” bones were found in a trash pit along with the bones of snakes and horses is persuasive, especially because they are the first bones to appear alongside the refuse of other Starving Time-era edible items. I also agree with the idea that people would have viewed tongue and brains as perfectly tasty forms of offal insofar as animals were concerned, and don’t find it all that weird that people might’ve gravitated toward those portions of Jane’s body. The cuts on her skull (and especially on her tibia) and the way these pieces describe them try to make a strong case for the fact that people made them after Jane’s death.

Here’s the thing: I’m still not sure that any of these pieces successfully prove the existence of cannibalism.

In the Jamestown Rediscovery Youtube video, Dr. Douglas Owsley suggests that the butchering marks were made after death. But the Smithsonian release clearly states that “cause of death could not be determined from the remains, estimated to be less than 10 percent of the complete skeleton.” From that assertion it seems just as reasonable to suggest that the marks could have been made during Jane’s life. Who knows? She was a high-born girl. Maybe like so many of the gentlemen at Jamestownshe was hoarding food, someone killed her to get it, and then that person unskillfully removed her face and dumped her in a trash pit to hide the body.

There are other points that give me pause, beyond the circumstances surrounding Jane’s death. Although all of these articles prove the removal of specific portions of Jane’s body, none of them convincingly demonstrate that people consumed those body parts. All the news reports I’ve seen mention the butchering of Jane’s tongue, brain, the skin around her face, and the area around her tibia—presumably her calf. The USA Today link asserts that skin was a traditional cuisine from the 17th century, and I just don’t see that argument translating to this particular case. Why eat the skin, or even choice bits like tongue and brains, when people had access to fattier, more nourishing portions? We’re not talking deep-fried foodie chicken skin here; we’re talking severe nutritional deficiencies, so why the focus on such measly parts? In this respect especially, I think I’d need to wait on further evidence regarding consumption of other parts of Jane’s body before I believe that people ate her.

In addition, why are there no primary sources that cite the cannibalization of this girl? She’s no salted wife, no dead Indian, and no hanged man. I’ve written a bit on how some colonists like John Smith and George Percy sensationalized such stories of cannibalism, and find it a bit odd that they wouldn’t have included the story of the cannibalization of a high-born girl. Wouldn’t that have been much more “lamentable” than the death of a lazy colonist (at least in Percy’s interpretation)? The future of the colony could have rested on Jane as well as other women’s capacity to bear children. There were, as these news stories all assert, myriad accounts of the Starving Time, and I’ve never seen any primary source account that even closely matches a description in keeping with what this anthropological find describes.

None of these speculations negate the severity of the Starving Time—but neither do they convince me that cannibalism took place.

Of course, one of the lovely things about being a historian is the forgivingness of the profession. We are allowed to say that we’ve been wrong. So maybe that’s that: maybe Jim Horn, Bill Kelso, and Douglas Owsley are right, and I’m wrong—but as of this moment, I’m not completely swayed.

Edit: You can hear me briefly talking about cannibalism on the BBC radio show World Have Your Say (the segment I’m on starts at 40:35)

19 responses

  1. Thanks for your take, Rachel! I might just add the Washington Post article here, where Owsley says that there is no proof that the people who cut up the flesh actually ate it, only that it seems the most likely scenario for making these sorts of cuts. (It has been hard to separate the journalist’s voice from the archaeologist’s in many of these articles.) Sadly, I don’t think that we will know what became of the rest of the body – for all we know, the other parts were cannibalized too, but they only found the tibia, jaw, and skull – all with marks consistent with butchering, it seems. I wonder if it even matters how she died – I think that their only points about saying she wasn’t murdered was that these wounds were postmortem. Even if she were murdered, these wounds came after her death. Do you have a hypothesis of why people would have taken the brain out for reasons other than eating? That wouldn’t speak to identity. I think that you are right about the sensational aspect of writing about cannibalism. But I wonder if the lack of reports of eating a young English girl also reflect more of a hesitation to report on that eating of a potential “peer,” or social equal, than eating an Indian or a hanged criminal. I will be very interested to learn if they find more evidence in future excavations! Because I’m obviously rapt by how historians are interpreting this evidence and findings! Thanks for your thoughts.


  2. I am always happy that historians embrace skepticism- I hope my students do too. It’s one of the reasons that I love this type of historical story. I relish talking about cannibalism in my courses. The students find it fascinating- who wouldn’t? My students might not remember everything I teach them, but they will remember this story. And if they can then draw on the lessons they learn from it about human frailty, the beginning of this country, relative morality, then I feel like I’ve won.

    I think your specific skepticism is worth noting. Forensic anthropologists are very good at determining whether a cut was postmortem. This girl could not have gotten these cuts at a younger age, she was dead. She also could not have been dead long (the cuts are clear that there was muscle/meat on her bones- although probably not a lot). No, we can’t determine what people did with the muscle and brain they cut, but with a lack of other options (to quote Sherlock Holmes) “the remaining, however improbable, must be the truth.” Until someone comes up with another possible reason why colonists did this in 1610, (and you may come up with that reason) I’m going to believe the excavators, and use this an opportunity in my classroom to discuss gender and class dynamics that I may of resulted in this girl without defenders against her desecration.

    • A dose of skeptism in response to media stories is well founded. They never present all the facts nor do they always present the ones they are told correctly or convincingly. However, as one of the physical anthropologists who has participated in the analysis of the remains alongside Doug Owsley, I can assure you that the evidence is quite compelling. Put alongside the survivor accounts and the historic context, in addition to the archaeological context, Arguing AGAINST cannibalism at Jamestown is much more difficult than what the preponderance of evidenc suggests. Did we see the colonists consume the girl? Absolutely not – but if this is your criteria for believing the events of the past than very little can be proven with the evidence left behind. Future lectures and publications will present the evidence in detail and I encourage those interested to get access to the data and then pass judgement. As in contemporary forensic casework, we take bone evidence and make interpretations – but we do not make them lightly. In this case, we will offer firm testimony to the evidence at hand.
      Kari Bruwelheide, Dept. of ANthropology, NMNH

      • Thanks so much for your comment, Kari. I’m jealous that you got to work on the analysis of the remains, and would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that. I’m still unsure of whether or not I’m convinced that cannibalism took place, not because I need to see colonists consuming the girl, but because I think it’s a big jump from proving butchering to proving consumption. But I’m happy to be undecided; at present my biggest issue is with those news stories proclaiming definitive “proof” of cannibalism at Jamestown.

  3. How do we know she was English? Most of her face is missing. She might have been, but as a 19th century historian I’ve been made keenly aware of the hopelessly tainted origins of this kind of physical anthropology. It’s full of guesses and judgements loaded with cultural bias, like “this person is primitive so their skin must be dark.” This smithsonian was full of that kind of thing and they have been gradually removing those exhibits, and the apologetic explanatory ws that increasingly accompanied them

  4. At this time of the semester, I do not have the time to check the Records of the Virginia Company, or to look at any of the passenger lists, but there had to have been a very tiny number of teenage girls in Jamestown during this period. Is “Jane” the best we can do? I would, if nothing else, like to see something done to reconstruct her identity. I am less interested in whether she was cannibalized than how and why she ended up in Jamestown.

  5. But so WHAT IF this is the “powdered wife” herself? Stick with me, because this is going to get really speculative, but what if…

    So the bones are from a 14 year old girl. While pretty young, 14 wasn’t an unheard-of age for girls to get married in the very early 1600s, right? And I’m thinking it might be particularly reasonable for a young girl with few/no prospects in England. If so, she’d likely be newly married to an older man just before the voyage. And if a man did salt and eat part of his wife, wouldn’t it make some sense for it to happen to a young, newly married wife whose husband hasn’t had the time (or inclination) to forge a strong emotional attachment to her?

    If we want to play this out, it might even help explain the few number of bones found. Surely if a man preserved his wife in salt to consume her he wouldn’t preserve the entire body intact. So he butchered her and salted segments, perhaps eating the brain and tongue right away because they wouldn’t keep. And the accounts say he ate some of her before he was found out, right? Maybe he ate the section around the tibia that he salted. Those bones were discarded in the trash. Once he was discovered, the other parts of his wife would have been afforded a more proper burial, not just thrown in the trash as well, right?

    Anywho, of course it’s all worse than circumstantial and we can’t ever really know for sure, but it’s an interesting thought experiment, no?

    Dan Walden
    Baylor University

    • Hi Dan,

      I thought of this too, and it’s a great idea. But I’m skeptical she was the salted wife only because I find the salted wife story the portion of the whole narrative that’s most difficult to believe. There is one account in particular (by Thomas Gates) that states that the story stemmed from the actions of a man who murdered her wife because he hated her, and then cut her in pieces to hide the body. When authorities came to his house, though, they found food stores squirreled away in different places. Why would he have needed to cannibalize her if he had other food around? So yes, “Jane” might’ve been married, but given the fact that I’m not sure anyone actually salted and ate their wife, I’m hesitant to connect the two.

  6. Interesting blog and comments, here are mine.

    She’s obviously English, if you read the articles and see the videos, you would see that they know that from the context where she was found and from the isotopic tests on the bones that determined her diet over a long period of time, as well as the physical shape of her skull. And, there were numerous large and detailed butchering marks on all three separate scattered parts, and they were definitely after she died! There’s no reason to scale someone like a fish with metal blades just to “mutilate” them.

    And it sounds like she could possibly be the “powdered wife” but they aren’t making that jump because it would be tougher to prove. If any of the accounts are untrue, my guess would be that one rather than the others – would the writers embarrassed by the cannibalism explain it away with a story like that – saying “oh no, you might heard of cannibalism here, but it was just this one crazy murderous guy?!”

    The researchers said this woman was one of a number who came in on the Gates fleet of 1609 – the rest were shipwrecked, missed that bad winter, and arrived later. The group that arrived had a number of women but they were not named or even quantified, so it was an estimated 50 or so I believe they stated in the press conference. It would be tough to ever identify her further since so few women were named in the records of that period at all.

    The reactions here and elsewhere have been so interesting… why would it be easier to believe a scenario about her being murdered and mutilated in some elaborate way than to believe the documented situation of “survival” cannibalism done in desperation by dying people? And the absence of the rest of the body doesn’t mean that what they found was the only part “processed for consumption,” it’s just the only part that ended up scattered in that pit! There are

    The evidence in this case is exactly what historical archaeology is at it’s best – empirical evidence that -in this case- corroborates and enhances the written record. Sometimes the archaeological evidence refutes the historical record, in this case it supports it. If a criminal case were in court, would you want the written evidence of the people who were there, or the physical evidence? You’d want BOTH, right? Well, now it looks like they’ve got it! Kudos to Kari and the rest of her team!

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  8. There were also butchered dog and horse bones in that deposit, not normal menu items for Englishmen. Do you suppose they were just chopping those up and removing the meat, but not consuming it, or can we safely assume that butchered animal bones = food? If they were food, so was this poor girl, but hopefully she was not killed for that purpose!

  9. Fascinating post, Rachel. What a trip it must be to find your scholarship suddenly dead center in national news story. I was looking forward to hearing your response. Just the other day, I recommended your original article to another food studies person, Julie Kim at Fordham, who was talking with me about teaching cannibalism.

    While I appreciate your general frustration with lousy reporting about matters of history, I think you might be underplaying just how strong the proof is here. I personally find their case so convincing that I think it’s unfair to put scare quotes around the word proof.

    Your rebuttal argues that during the Starving Time in Jamestown, someone carved all the meat off the head (including carving out the brains) and off the leg of a teenage girl’s body after she died, happened to put her bones along with the bones of a bunch of other animals eaten in desperation, but yet, for some unknown reason, refrained from eating that meat. Your alternate theory for why this mystery butcher carved this meat off the body is that this person murdered this girl for hoarding food.

    But why assume this hypothetical murderer was SO HUNGRY he was able to violate the established taboo of murder and then mutilate the corpse, and yet NOT QUITE so hungry that he could violate the taboo of eating human remains? What you call the “big jump” from butchering to consuming just seems like the next logical step. It seems like more of a leap to suggest that a starving person would bother to go through all this work without any food reward at the end. Why would a famished person expend precious calories doing this rather distasteful and difficult business of removing everything edible from a human skull? Your whole rebuttal relies on the theory of an extremely psychotic and irrational hungry person. Yet these acts committed on this corpse also fit the motivations of a person who just happens to be extremely hungry. All things being equal, which explanation seems more likely?

    And why would we expect to know about this case in any detail in the historical record? If someone did eat the flesh of their dead daughter or servant, wouldn’t we expect them to be kinda taciturn about it?

    I also wanted to add that I think this finding could value to your scholarship. Your WMQ article now has a new layer of significance as a demonstration of how our answers to sensitive and sensational historical questions can be challenged by new evidence. If you changed your mind and ceded the point here, that concession could also present the opportunity for a follow-up publication reconciling your thesis with this evidence, which could be widely read, cited, and taught alongside your original piece.

    You could really get some “pop” out of this anthropophagy, if you were so inclined. Hope you’re well and good luck in the UK!

    Yours in all things regarding early American postmortem bodily mutilation,

    • Hi Drew,

      Fair points all. The scare quotes are a reaction to news articles claiming definitive proof, even though I think the Jamestown folks themselves have been pretty careful in their phrasing.

      I offered the hypothetical murder option because it’s so similar to the situation of the man who purportedly salted and ate his wife. Thomas Gates’s account explicitly denies this, and suggests that the man merely killed her because he hated her. In that situation, it seems likely he could have killed her to avoid sharing food with her. Which, though I admit is not the same as murdering someone and stealing their food, is similar to murdering something and still avoiding cannibalism.

      I think it’s weird not to see this incident in the historical record given John Smith’s frankly large mouth, and George Percy’s desire to show how bad things really got in Jamestown. As a gentlemen, Percy might have had more invested in keeping things quiet, but I don’t think Smith would have felt the same way.

      All that said though, I offered the alternative interpretation for the sake of provocation. I’m happy to await the unveiling of additional evidence, and agree that the original article will now offer a nice example of how historical interpretations change when paired alongside these new developments.

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment!

      • The one last thing I would add about the use of the word “proof” by media reports is that it actually jibes with your original point in the article: that the textual evidence was, on its own, inadequate to determine that Jamestown cannibalism was a fact. I kinda doubt those headline writers or journalists were aware of your article, but you could give them credit for beginning from a place of skepticism!

        Although… that gets problematic if reporters instinctively think any claim made historians working with textual sources is somehow not provable while claims made by people with laboratory equipment and human remains is always proof. Lots of interesting things going on in this story other than the main tale of desperate hunger. I hope you relish the chance to weigh back in on this!

        • I think that it is a slippery slope to start arguing that silence in the written record outweighs, or diminishes, evidence from the material record. Commenters have suggested reasons that writers may not have recorded this instance of cannibalism, but it is equally possible that Smith and Gates didn’t know about this specific instance or that written records that mentioned it have been lost. I think that it’s important that we historians don’t treat material evidence as secondary to textual evidence, otherwise we risk portraying entire fields of study as secondary themselves. Food history, it seems, only stands to gain by integrating a variety of types of sources (and necessarily, different types of analysis) into the study of the past rather than looking for proof of the material record in the written one.

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  11. Surely if an Englishman ate an Indian or a criminal that was still cannibalism. Perhaps it would have been more socially acceptable to the English, but if we do not acknowledge it as cannibalism now, we perpetuate the prejudices of the 17th century.

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