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May 6, 2013

Jamestown Discovery Reflects Grim Life of Early Settlers

Watch A Grisly Discovery About Starvation at Jamestown Settlement on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

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Teachers: students may find some of this material disturbing

New evidence found at Jamestown, the site of America’s first permanent English settlement, confirms that settlers there resorted to cannibalism during a particularly tough time in the settlement’s history.

Researchers found the body of a 14-year-old girl with marks on her cheekbones and skull that support the theory that she was butchered after her death for consumption. There is no evidence that she was murdered.

“From my experience working with prehistoric skeletons, where I have seen postmortem, meaning after-death, processing of remains, this is absolutely consistent with what we see in cannibalism,” said Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institute.

When the settlers from the Virginia Company of London established the colony in 1607, historians believe the area was experiencing its worst drought in 800 years. About 80 percent of the colonists died within the first three years.

Click to watch a discussion on this topic with William Kelso of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project

Warm up questions

1. What was North America like in the 1600s?

2. What was Jamestown? What do you know about it?

2. What was life like for early European colonists in America?

Discussion questions

1. Does this discovery change your perception of the Jamestown settlement? Why or why not?

2. Why do you think researchers continue to investigate sites like Jamestown?

3. Do you think schools should now teach this part of Jamestown’s history in the classroom? Why or why not?

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