What the news from Jamestown does (and doesn’t) prove
Reports landed today that skeletal evidence from the Jamestown colony shows, on at least one occasion, cannibalism practiced by the first permanent European settlers in what’s now the U.S.
The announcement came first from the Smithsonian’s Newsdesk, in a posting that contains lots of great images and video clips. A number of big-name media jumped on it: Within hours we got writeups and broadcasts from the New York Times, Washington Post, and the BBC, among others.
From what I can tell, a lot of good archaeology and forensic work went into this announcement. At the Smithsonian link above, you can see images of the cutmarks on the skull and mandible-the evidence of what the anthropologists referred to as “hesitant” attempts to deflesh the young woman. Young woman? Yes: Isotope analysis of her bones indicates a diet high in grains native to Europe, implying she was an immigrant, and other skeletal signs point to an age at death in her early teens.
But one part of this story is, to my mind, overblown. Or at least overextended.
When I teach introductory courses in archaeology and anthropology, I always spend time talking about cannibalism. Students tend to be interested in the topic, and it’s one that anthropologists have spent a lot of time studying, so I have a lot of material to draw from.
I always contextualize the idea of cannibalism: endocannibalism (consuming people in your social group, usually for ritual purposes), vs. exocannibalism (consuming people outside your social group, much rarer, and usually for different ritual purposes), vs. survival cannibalism (consuming people to avert starvation). Furthermore, I note that “cannibal” has historically been a slur (with little or no evidence) used by European colonizers to justify enslavement or genocide against Native people.
The point is that there’s a lot of nuance involved in eating humans, and there are times and places where various groups have socially sanctioned cannibalizing some but not others, and that the charge of “cannibal” has historically been a fraught one.
Moreover, better than a century of anthropological fieldwork (cultural, archaeological, and biological) has demonstrated numerous examples in which human societies routinely deflesh, dismember, or otherwise alter their dead, but do not actually consume them. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Kilgrove has an excellent discussion of several cases in this post.
To put it simply, this evidence from Jamestown doesn’t actually prove that a person was eaten, it proves that a person was defleshed. Big difference. The claim that the colonists then proceeded to consume her flesh is an assumption, not something demonstrated by the evidence presented.
What constitutes evidence of cannibalism? Preserved stomach contents or feces containing markers of human tissue are the gold standard, such as that found through molecular analysis of a coprolite at a site called Coyote Wash (Abstract here, though you have to pay to read the article. Also: Some dispute this analysis).
Now, as assumptions go, this one seems quite reasonable to me. I think it’s pretty fair to assume that in the Jamestown case, eating followed defleshing. The skeletal remains date to a particularly bad stretch of the colony’s early years, when food was short, disease was rife, and death was everywhere. Remember survival cannibalism? We know this has happened, for instance, in lifeboat situations: There’s even English case law to deal with it. When it’s eat our own or starve, it seems we tend to choose the former (though as in the lifeboat case, we may not be judged well when things get back to normal).
Though it might seem a bit pedantic to stress the point, good interpretation in archaeology (and all anthropology) involves clearly identifying those things that are demonstrated by our evidence and those things that result from analogy and assumption. No matter how likely the assumption.