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Starving US colonists resorted to cannibalism: study

Washington, May 3, 2013, (PTI) : 18:22 IST
The Susan Constant, a replica of Christopher Newport's ship docked in the harbor. This was the largest of the three ships which carried settlers for the Virgina Company.  Wikipedia Image

Settlers at Jamestown - the first English colony in America - likely resorted to cannibalism of a young girl in the harsh winter of 1609, a new study claims.

A forensic analysis of 17th-century human remains prove that survival cannibalism took place in historic Jamestown, researchers said.

The findings answer a long-standing question among historians about the occurrence of cannibalism at Jamestown during the deadly winter of 1609–1610 known as the "starving time" — a period during which about 80 per cent of the colonists died.

Douglas Owsley, the division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, worked closely with chief archaeologist William Kelso from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project at Preservation Virginia and his team since 1996, examining skeletal remains to help researchers understand the lives of individual colonial settlers in the Chesapeake.

The incomplete human skull and tibia (shin bone) were excavated by Jamestown archaeologists in 2012 as part of a 20-year excavation of James Fort.
Owsley and his research team identified a number of features on the skull and tibia that indicated the individual was cannibalised.

Four shallow chops to the forehead represent a failed first attempt to open the skull. The back of the head was then struck by a series of deep, forceful chops from a small hatchet or cleaver, researchers said.

The final blow split the cranium open. Sharp cuts and punctures mark the sides and bottom of the mandible, reflecting efforts to remove tissue from the face and throat using a knife.

"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," said Owsley.

By analysing the dental development of the third molar and the growth stage of her shin bone, the researchers determined that "Jane" was approximately 14 years old when she died.

The cause of death could not be determined from the remains, estimated to be less than 10 per cent of the complete skeleton.

After scanning the incomplete remains of the fragmented skull with the museum's CT scanner, a virtual model of the skull was pieced together digitally.

This digital rendering was sent to the Medical Modelling company to print a three-dimensional replica of the reconstructed skull.

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