The Little Girl and the Starving Time

Daughter of Jamestown

I just finished working with The Female American, whose narrator claims to have a grandfather from Jamestown, so I have Jamestown on the mind. Then yesterday this story popped up about facial reconstruction that they finished on a skull found in a bone pile from Jamestown. A skull peppered with hatchet marks before being split open. A skull that was almost certainly cannibalized.

It dates from a period called the Starving Time, aka 1609-10, when the colonists saw their number drop from over 300 to 60 over the course of one winter. They ate their boots, then every animal that didn’t run away from them before turning on the dead, which is where this girl comes in. Her teeth put her age around 14 years old, and what’s left of her was found in a pile of animal bones, meaning they didn’t bury her, they just threw what was left of her in the trash and walked away. This would have only happened at their height of their desperation, perhaps obviously. As I read every story I could find online about this discovery, there were two things that struck me. First is that this isn’t news to me, the period accounts I’ve read are very upfront about the cannibalism, and second is that what this “new evidence” really shows is that people are still intensely uncomfortable with the past.

The New York Times says, don’t worry: “It is unclear how the girl died, but she was almost certainly dead and buried before her remains were butchered.” Nope. The skull shows evidence that the skin of the face was flayed off, the tongue removed, and the great pains exerted to remove the brain. None of this would be edible had she been buried and exhumed again. Smithsonian magazine agrees: “It appears that her brain, tongue, cheeks and leg muscles were eaten, with the brain likely eaten first, because it decomposes so quickly after death.” Don’t worry though, The Washington Post assures us that she was definitely dead first: “The tentative cuts to the front of the skull and the deeper ones to the back are close together — evidence that she was dead, not squirming, when they were made.”

Bones of Jamestown

Most articles agree that she was a daughter of a good family, which her diet pre-Jamestown (inferred from the remaining bones) suggests. However, her non-burial suggests that she died well into the Starving Time. This Smithsonian site briefly recounts their breakdown in burial customs, but suffice it to say, throwing her in the trash would not have happened on Day 1. Multiple articles also reference accounts of a man who killed, salted, and ate his wife. The purpose of this is to show how desperate things had gotten so the reader can understand why they ate this freshly-dead little girl. Except there are multiple accounts the murder, outlined here, one of which claims that they had a house full of food, which would explain why the husband was executed so quickly.

People might wonder why I study literature that’s so old, they say it’s boring, but really I think people turn away from it because it’s just so horrific. The 1600s accounts of Jamestown were very upfront about cannibalism and people have been hoping, for hundreds of years, not to find any evidence. Here’s the thing though: settlers were trying to put a positive spin on things. They needed help, provisions, proof that their colony had divine ordination. There was no motivation to lie about cannibalizing each other, in fact, there was quite the opposite. The real lie, one that I’ve maintained here, one that no article can let go of, is the most chilling of all. The truth of the matter is, when this happened, society had broken down, and its constructs went down with it. The most horrifying truth of all is this: there were no little girls in the Starving Time.

Images: Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian via the New York Times

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