Rachel Herrmann

Academia, food, and history

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Digging Out my Cannibal Girl Hat
So, funny story. When I first submitted my article on cannibalism and the Starving Time at Jamestown to the William and Mary Quarterly, the piece strongly argued against any occurrence of cannibalism. When I got my readers’ reports back, Editor Chris Grasso pointed out that I didn’t really have the evidence to convincingly make that claim. He said that he’d accept the article only if I agreed to temper the argument—which was really fine with me because the main point of the essay was to ask why the stories of cannibalism mattered, not to argue for or against the existence of cannibalism in colonial Virginia.

And yet. Even after publishing the article I remained a bit doubtful of the veracity of all those early reports of cannibalism. I came to the private conclusion that Jamestown colonists probably did eat the bodies of a dead Indian and those of hanged men, but to my mind the story of the salted wife seemed completely exaggerated.

Lo and behold, a slew of recent news articles have appeared following the discovery of a 14-year-old Virginia girl whose bones apparently “prove” the existence of cannibalism in Jamestown.

And here I am, still decidedly skeptical.

To be sure, some of these articles offer convincing evidence for cannibalism. The point that “Jane’s” bones were found in a trash pit along with the bones of snakes and horses is persuasive, especially because they are the first bones to appear alongside the refuse of other Starving Time-era edible items. I also agree with the idea that people would have viewed tongue and brains as perfectly tasty forms of offal insofar as animals were concerned, and don’t find it all that weird that people might’ve gravitated toward those portions of Jane’s body. The cuts on her skull (and especially on her tibia) and the way these pieces describe them try to make a strong case for the fact that people made them after Jane’s death.

Here’s the thing: I’m still not sure that any of these pieces successfully prove the existence of cannibalism.

In the Jamestown Rediscovery Youtube video, Dr. Douglas Owsley suggests that the butchering marks were made after death. But the Smithsonian release clearly states that “cause of death could not be determined from the remains, estimated to be less than 10 percent of the complete skeleton.” From that assertion it seems just as reasonable to suggest that the marks could have been made during Jane’s life. Who knows? She was a high-born girl. Maybe like so many of the gentlemen at Jamestown, she was hoarding food, someone killed her to get it, and then that person unskillfully removed her face and dumped her in a trash pit to hide the body.

There are other points that give me pause, beyond the circumstances surrounding Jane’s death. Although all of these articles prove the removal of specific portions of Jane’s body, none of them convincingly demonstrate that people consumed those body parts. All the news reports I’ve seen mention the butchering of Jane’s tongue, brain, the skin around her face, and the area around her tibia—presumably her calf. The USA Today link asserts that skin was a traditional cuisine from the 17th century, and I just don’t see that argument translating to this particular case. Why eat the skin, or even choice bits like tongue and brains, when people had access to fattier, more nourishing portions? We’re not talking deep-fried foodie chicken skin here; we’re talking severe nutritional deficiencies, so why the focus on such measly parts? In this respect especially, I think I’d need to wait on further evidence regarding consumption of other parts of Jane’s body before I believe that people ate her.

In addition, why are there no primary sources that cite the cannibalization of this girl? She’s no salted wife, no dead Indian, and no hanged man. I’ve written a bit on how some colonists like John Smith and George Percy sensationalized such stories of cannibalism, and find it a bit odd that they wouldn’t have included the story of the cannibalization of a high-born girl. Wouldn’t that have been much more “lamentable” than the death of a lazy colonist (at least in Percy’s interpretation)? The future of the colony could have rested on Jane as well as other women’s capacity to bear children. There were, as these news stories all assert, myriad accounts of the Starving Time, and I’ve never seen any primary source account that even closely matches a description in keeping with what this anthropological find describes.

None of these speculations negate the severity of the Starving Time—but neither do they convince me that cannibalism took place.

Of course, one of the lovely things about being a historian is the forgivingness of the profession. We are allowed to say that we’ve been wrong. So maybe that’s that: maybe Jim Horn, Bill Kelso, and Douglas Owsley are right, and I’m wrong—but as of this moment, I’m not completely swayed.

Edit: You can hear me briefly talking about cannibalism on the BBC radio show World Have Your Say (the segment I'm on starts at 40:35)

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Perhaps the girl just vanished, or was the victim of a grave robber who covered his tracks well, and that's why there are no anecdotes concerning what happened to her. A cannibal doesn't necessarily boast about what he's done, or get caught.

Perhaps what has been found was just someone's "share" of the whole.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps ...

When it comes to times and places like Jamestown, really, how much is provable? Evidence increases probability, but there is relatively little that can proven in an absolute sense.

So the new evidence doesn't prove cannibalism. Okay, I can buy that. A better question is, does the new evidence increase the likelihood that cannibalism occurred? Be as skeptical as you like, do you think the probability is lessened, unchanged, or increased by this evidence?

Cannibalism at Jamestown

I also believe the "salted wife" story and its embellishment seem a bit far fetched, and I think whether that case happened or not, it was probably put forward so much almost as propaganda because perhaps the VA complany wanted to say things were not that bad at Jamestown overall, it was just this one crazy murderous guy!

However, I hope you have seen the evidence that there is no way this "Jane" was injured with those marks during her lifetime. They were in fact going for a very nutritious part of the body - the brain. Animal brains were commonly eaten at the time, and books about cannibalism indicate that the brain is often eaten early on as it spoils faster than other parts of the body.

Re: Cannibalism at Jamestown

Oh, I agree that the marks were postmortem. I still think that it's a long jump between proving dismemberment (if you killed someone, probably strategic to remove her face, hence the need to cut into the skull) and proving consumption.

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