In school, we were taught that the colonial settlers were thoroughly admirable — hardy yet devout, hard-working and keen on personal liberty, bringing civilization to an untamed continent. The reality, it turns out, isn’t quite so trim and tidy.
Anthropologists have uncovered strong evidence of cannibalism among the Jamestown settlers. The evidence consists of human remains that appear to date from the “starving time” — the winter of 1609-10, when beleaguered settlers were crowded into a fort and under attack by local Indians. The bones are of a 14-year-old girl who, based upon marks to her skull, appears to have been butchered after she was dead and stripped of meat for the remaining settlers to consume as they desperately sought to stay alive.
Interestingly, there were written accounts of cannibalism that date from the early days of Jamestown, including accounts of starving settlers digging corpses out of the ground to eat their flesh and a crazed husband who killed his pregnant wife and salted her flesh to preserve it for later consumption. Of course, we weren’t taught any of that in our American history classes, but the recent forensic studies serve to corroborate the early written accounts.
So much of what we have learned about America has been air-brushed and sanitized — and for what purpose? Why try to make early settlers into saint-like creatures rather than recognizing that they often acted out of desperation, anger, jealousy, greed, and other base human emotions? No one condones cannibalism, but the true story of Jamestown’s “starving time” tells us a lot more about how far people will go to survive in a desolate wilderness than whitewashed tales of prim colonists praying over tables groaning with food.