In 2012 Jamestown archaeologists excavated fragments of a human skull and leg bone dating to the "starving time" winter of 1609-1610. From these remains forensic anthropologists have been able to reconstruct the story of a long-forgotten young woman, while confirming a desperate story of survival in a struggling colony.
Colonists wrote about the winter starving time of 1609-1610, when by one account, only 60 Virginia settlers survived out of 500. In the face of slow death by starvation a few of the desperate resorted to living off the remains of the dead. Records also state that a man killed and ate his wife. These written accounts have never been proven, until now. The bones found in this trash deposit within the James Fort site confirm this grisly period of survival.
Evidence at the Scene
Excavation of a cellar during Jamestown Rediscovery's 2012 field season produced an unusual find — a partial human skull and leg bone. They were among discarded butchered non-human bones and artifacts dating to the "starving time." This debris was likely collected from a common trash pit and re-deposited in the cellar in an effort to "cleanse" the decrepit town by Governor De La Warr and his men who arrived in June 1610.
The broken cranium (above, as it was found, and at right, when laid out with other parts of the skeleton) was found next to an American Indian clay pot. The mandible and the knee-end of a right tibia were found nearby in the cellar. The small cranial shape matches other 17th-century English females.
Unerupted and partially formed third molars and beginning union of the growth plate (epiphysis) at the knee indicate an age of about 14 years. For more information about how bones change with age, see Young or Old in this website's Skeleton Keys section.
The Starving Time
Jane is one of the many who did not survive the colony’s “starving time” winter. It is likely that she arrived at the Fort in late summer or early fall of 1609 when several ships of the ill-fated Third Supply arrived at the colony with a number of women and girls aboard, as well as craftsmen.
At least three factors led to the "starving time." The colony was not self-sufficient even before additional people arrived in late summer of 1609 and the ship that carried the desperately needed supplies was separated from the others and shipwrecked in Bermuda. The summer of 1609 had been dry and what crops had survived were meager at best. And, finally, relations with the neighboring tribe were not good - not only was there little, if any, exchange of provisions, but the tribe was hostile and the Fort was under siege.
Video: Quotes from Jamestown Settlers
The winter of 1609-1610 in Jamestown is referred to as the "starving time." Disease, violence, drought, a meager harvest followed by a harsh winter, and poor drinking water left the majority of colonists dead that winter. Anthropologists continue to unravel the events leading to near-destruction of the Jamestown settlement. The words recorded by colonists themselves provide important clues. Video developed for the Written in Bone exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History.
Evidence of Survival Cannibalism
Unlike skeletal injuries related to the cause of death, these bones have marks reflecting a deliberate attempt to open the skull and remove tissues, including the brain. Stereozoom and scanning electron microscopy was used to examine the pattern and types of sharp cuts, chops and punctures from three metal implements. Four shallow chops in the forehead represent a failed first attempt to open the skull.The back of the head was struck by a series of deep, forceful chops from a small hatchet or cleaver. The final blow split the cranium into two halves. Fine cuts and punctures mark the sides and bottom of the mandible. These reflect efforts to remove tissues from the face and throat. Cuts on the tibia fragment suggest that the bone was cut in two different places, then broken open to retrieve the marrow (not included here but shown in "Skeletal Evidence" above).
Video: Bringing Jane to Life
Anthropologists and imaging experts have been able to piece together the skull fragments to create a partial intact skull using 3D imaging techniques. A complete skull can be created by using mirror imaging techniques to form the missing left side.
Once the skull pieces have been scanned and the virtual reconstruction completed, a facial reconstruction can be made by a forensic sculptor using the bone model as a guide. The likeness of this young woman as she appeared in life helps tell her story and adds a long forgotten face to the past.
This video shows a virtual rebuilding of the skull and high-resolution images of the cut marks in the bones. This digital technology provides information on the overall shape of the skull and how it was broken. Anthropologists used this technology to create a physical model used in the reconstruction of the individual’s appearance.
Technology used in medicine to create bone models for surgeons, called additive manufacturing or 3D printing, was employed to create a digital replica of the skull. High-resolution imaging shows cuts in the skull and tibia. Video Animation: Stephen L. Rouse & Additive Manufacturing for Medicine; Computed Tomography: Siemens Medical Solutions, Inc.; Stereolithography: Medical Modeling; Mimics Software: Materilaize; Forensic Sculpture: Studio EIS; Funding: Roy E. Hock and Margaret Nelson Fowler. (This video is silent. It is best when viewed in full screen mode (double arrows, lower right corner).