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Jamestown’s ‘Jane’ Reflects Grim Reality of America’s Early Settlers

May 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
An archaeological dig at Jamestown, Va., unearthed the remains of a teenage girl whose skull had been butchered -- confirmation that early settlers resorted to cannibalism to stave avoid starvation. Jeffrey Brown talks to William Kelso, the director of the team, about how their discovery alters our understanding of that history.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now is William Kelso, director of archaeology at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. He directed the team that unearthed the young woman’s bones and is author of the book “Jamestown: The Buried Truth.”

Well, thanks for joining us.

Now, there have been written accounts of cannibalism in the past, right, so is this something you were specifically looking for?

WILLIAM KELSO, Jamestown Rediscovery Project: Well, there are written accounts.

There are actually six from six different people, but they’re all very enigmatic, and they’re hard to follow. And I personally didn’t really believe that they were that true, because I thought they were making political statements back to the sponsoring Virginia Company to send more supplies, but the fact that we have those, and now we have the forensic evidence, and also the archaeological context where we found these remains in a layer of soil that we can date to what was called the starving time of 1609-1610.

JEFFREY BROWN: As to the evidence, fill in the picture a little more that lets you know it is definitely cannibalism. What are the signs that make this so clear-cut?

WILLIAM KELSO: The marks, the cuts that are on the cranium, the skull — and these are the things that Dr. Owsley has pointed out — are — all add up to someone wouldn’t make these marks unless they were removing soft tissue and the brain from the skull.

And there are just scores of sawing-like cut marks where you know that the only reason that they could be there is to remove the flesh.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — we said that we don’t know much about — well, we don’t know how the young woman died. What do we know about her? What can be said?

WILLIAM KELSO: Well, we don’t know her name.

We have named her Jane, as in Jane Doe, because — to give her some kind of a personality, but we don’t know her name because the ships that came in 1609 that brought several women, there’s not a list of their names. But we can know something from the fact that most of them that came were either the daughters of gentlemen or would be maid servants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, so what is the — what is the significance for you of something like this, as you’re looking at this long-term project of trying to figure out what happened there? Is this a big surprise? Is this a major step to know sort of, I guess, how serious it was at that time?

WILLIAM KELSO: Yes, that’s certainly true.

And it has had quite an impact on me. I think that archaeologists can deal with material culture artifacts and get some feeling for the people, but it’s when you come face to face with something like this. In my case, I have a much more of — empathy for the situation they were in, and the fact that Jamestown came so close to failing.

And I think the course of American history from that point on, from this first permanent English settlement, would have been quite different had it failed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, fill that — are we still learning more about what that winter was really like and how — what a close call it really was?

WILLIAM KELSO: Well, I think so right off, because there are these accounts that you can take as a grain of salt sometimes, but now I’m convinced.

This is — this happened. And to be reduced to that level of starvation is hard for a modern person to even imagine. But I think now we can, because here is conclusive proof, I feel, that that took place.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s the next step for you? Or what are you — what’s the next thing that you’re most concerned to look for?

WILLIAM KELSO: Well, we are still excavating in a cellar room that became a kitchen or a bakery site down below ground.

Now, that level, that layer that was — of soil that Jane’s remains were found in, of course, that’s been excavated. But there’s the floor levels of the kitchen. And we just started yesterday and more today uncovering those layers. Now, I don’t expect to find more of that situation, because the layers above is where we found it. But we can learn a lot about the starving time from what was thrown around in that cellar, and it’s quite a thick layer.

And the site is open to the public. They can see us do these excavations right up front and close. So we’re sharing our moment of discovery with the public as we do our research.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. William Kelso on the archaeological discoveries at Jamestown, thanks so much.

WILLIAM KELSO: Thank you, Jeff.