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What the news from Jamestown does (and doesn’t) prove

May 1, 2013

Cannibalism in Brazil in 1557 as described by Hans Staden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari Bruwelheide permalink
    May 3, 2013 9:11 am

    While your statement seems logical, as one who has worked on the remains from Jamestown first hand you seem to ignore several keys points the are particularly telling in this unique case.1) the archaeological context of the bones. Not only where the incomplete skull and leg bone found within James Fort, but they were found within a trash deposit along with butchered non-human bones (animals) that were the remains of meals. The cuts and chops on the animal bones reflect consumption, not simply defleshing. This deposit clearly dates to the winter of 1609-10 – the “starving time”. 2) Historical first-hand accounts. There are numerous accounts from the few survivors of that winter that state very plainly they resorted to eating the remains of the dead and in the case of 1 man, resorted to killing and then eating his wife. 3) The bones themselves. We have seen and studied bones from Native American contexts that were products of ritual defleshing. We have also studied numerous contemporary forensic cases of murder and dismemberment. We have even examined remains from serial muderers that were cannibals. These bones clearly show marks (cuts, chops, punctures, that reflect an attempt (unskillful as it was) to remove tissue of the face and throat AND remove the brain. Within Jamestown in 1609-10, this evidence would clearly suggest survival cannibalism, not defleshing (why would they deflesh if not for food?). I encourage all interested to stay tuned for a full presentation of the evidence – it is lengthy. Jamestown as a site is unique in many ways, especially because of the historical accounts that accompany it. These offer evidence and insight usually lacking in other archaeological contexts. In this case, the archaeological, historical and skeletal evidence are indeed, proof of survival cannibalism. We look forward to future discussion on the topic, particularly with skeptics.

    • John R. Roby permalink*
      May 3, 2013 9:28 am

      Kari, thank you very much for the response. You raise excellent points, and like many people, I’m looking forward to seeing how the evidence unfolds. I’m not skeptical of the interpretation at all — I’m merely noting that from the evidence presented, it’s just that, an interpretation (though a very strong one based on multiple lines of evidence, as you point out.)

      All the initial reports I found (including the one from Smithsonian’s Newsdesk) use the word “prove.” That’s a high burden, and it doesn’t seem to have been met. In the future, perhaps it will be.

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