Archaeologists have had a big year. First it was Richard III turning up under a parking lot. Now it’s the settlers at Jamestown eating one of their own. A team from the Smithsonian rolled out the news that in their recent excavation of a garbage dump at the site of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, they found skeletal remains of a girl who showed signs of having been butchered. In 1609-1610, English colonists faced a long hard winter in the the tiny outpost on the edge of the North American continent and they got a little hungry. In fact, most of them starved to death, died of disease, or were killed by the Powhatan Indians who besieged the fort the colonists had barricaded themselves inside.
The Jamestown archaeologists seem to have taken a tip from their confreres at the University of Leicester who found Richard III: they also came up with a facial reconstruction of the poor girl (dubbed “Jane”) whose life in the New World came to such a bad end. While she looks a little dour in the picture, she’s been outfitted with a fetching kerchief. Some observers have been catty enough to suggest that such forensic reconstructions are just attention seeking behavior given that they serve no real research purpose. Certainly, the team’s recounting of the cut marks on the bones at the press conference had the breathlessness of breaking news reported by a rookie anchor. This was a little odd given that the events in question took place more than four hundred years ago. But let’s have some compassion. It’s not easy making a professional practice that requires mind-boggling feats of patience and endless hours of wielding very tiny toothbrushes news worthy.
Not since a college student flashed the message “love you” on her eyelids at Indiana Jones has the profession seemed cool. Indy didn’t spend much of his time sifting detritus through ever finer mesh screens. One character in Raiders of the Lost Ark described Jones as a, “Professor of archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it? Obtainer of rare antiquities.” If his methods were a bit unorthodox, they sure were cinematic. Who knew that that a bull whip could come in so handy out on a dig? At least the Jamestown crew didn’t have to wade through a pit of venomous asps. Hollywood is good at making even the most tedious kinds of research seem exciting. Why wait hours for documents to be delivered to your desk when you can just break into the Library of Congress á la National Treasure? And wouldn’t you be more motivated to find what you’re looking for in the Vatican’s archives if the air were being sucked out of the room (Da Vinci Code)?
So let’s forgive the archaeologists for going all Cold Case on us when they finally found the material evidence to back up what textual evidence has suggested for a while. It’s not news that the colonists resorted to the last resort. Survivors of the starving time in Jamestown wrote accounts of what had happened there. Historians accept those accounts as valid and also as ironic reversals: the European newcomers to the Americas almost always accused the natives of being cannibals. The reversal these days is that the Jamestown news has been greeted with a shrug. Ho hum—more survival cannibalism. The London Guardian included a helpful poll with its story asking readers whether they’d eat human flesh in similarly extreme circumstances. Over two thirds answered yes and added some jolly puns in the comments about Jack Lemmon and Francis Bacon.
We might take this as an acceptance of the desperate measures taken by desperate people. Less charitably, it looks like the cynicism of the over entertained and over fed engaged in a thought experiment along the lines of: what if the moon were made of cheese? In short, we whistle past the graveyard and hope never to find ourselves in such straits. Yet of course, some people do. The young men who survived a plane crash in the Andes in 1972 in part by consuming the flesh of their friends have spent the rest of their lives telling the tale and meditating on its meaning. While the famous account of this in the book (and later movie) Alive emphasized the drama, the more recent documentary Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains deepens the story by asking the survivors to reflect not only on what they did but on what this did to them. These now old men tell the story honestly, but never lightly. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” Rest in peace, Jane of Jamestown.