Newly found fragments of a 400-year-old skeleton confirm the first permanent English settlers in North America resorted to cannibalism in the winter of 1609–1610, known by academics as the Starving Time.
The settlers turning to cannibalism is abhorrent, but we should not be quick to judge due to their extreme and wretched circumstances.
Researchers found the skull and tibia of a 14 year-old girl in a debris pile in the cellar of the fort on James River that sheltered Jamestown colonists. Under siege by indigenous Native American populations with insufficient food to last the winter, the settlers went from "powdered" — Middle English for salted — dogs, cats, and mice, to "carbonado'd" — or barbecued — snakes and the leather of their shoes.
Scientists confirm the victim was already dead when the cuts were made. The cuts found on the skull and leg bone are consistent with ax or cleaver cuts — what you may find on a hog's skull at a butcher shop.
History classes glean over the desperation and morbidity of the Jamestown settlers, rarely mentioning cannibalism despite over a half-dozen written accounts. Perhaps it is because of Jamestown's foundational significance; as the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, Jamestown's inhabitants were essentially our founding settlers.
That being said, cannibalism may not be the most pleasant of habits to associate one of the cradles of our nation with.
However, to ignore the nitty gritty facts would be a disservice. It wasn't all Squanto and cornucopias right from the get-go. Knowing what the Jamestown settlers had to resort to in order to create America’s first permanent settlement is a necessary truth. To address our history as anything less would be disingenuous and ill-informed.
There are no criminal codes that address cannibalism specifically in the United States, nor in many nations of the world. This could be because (with exception to the outliers who consciously choose to eat other humans, at which point they are charged with murder or desecration of corpses) cannibalism comes as the most desperate and final resort, when a person's mental state is pushed to the limits of humanity. It is rarely intentional, nor should it be accepted by any means, but it is survival.
Here are three American accounts of situations so dire, it was either death or cannibalism:
1. The Donner Party:
In May 1846, a group of 87 westward expansionists left Illinois with their sights set on the California gold rush. They planned for a September arrival. However, the emboldened pioneers decided on a "shortcut' through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, despite their wagons and cattle.
The first rescue group reached the party in February 1847. It took three more rescue groups to lead the rest to California, the last of whom arrived in March. Only 48 members of the Donner Party survived.
The Donner Party became notoriously linked with cannibalism. Scientists never found scientific evidence of said events ("inconclusive"), but surviving members of the Donner Party told, took back, denied, and re-told stories of cannibalism years after.
A member of the pioneers, Patrick Breen and his diary provided insight to where the Donner Party’s mindset was at: "Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday … she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I don’t think she has done so yet, it is distressing.”
Nancy Graves, 9-years-old during that winter, refused interviews with historians for her whole life — it was said that she was forever unable to recover from partaking in cannibalism of her brother and mother.
2. North Korea:
In the late 1990s, members of Doctors Without Borders (DWB) working along the Chinese-North Korean border conducted interviews with refugees and wrote a report stating North Koreans had resorted to cannibalism to survive the nation's famine. The food crisis reportedly took two million lives.
Due to North Korea's isolationist shroud, reports remain unconfirmed — however, they are persistent. The DWB aid workers conducted interviews with unrelated refugees who told different accounts of the same nature. One told of neighbors eating their daughter, another told of her neighbor killing and salting an uncared-for-orphan.
New reports emerged in May 2012 and January 2013 with similar claims of a "hidden famine" that is claiming tens of thousands of lives. Defectors of the state witnessed executions of people who had either eaten or sold human flesh, and fears of cannibalism are spreading in the country.
During World War II, German forces laid siege to the USSR's second largest city Leningrad, formerly known as St. Petersburg, in June 1941. By early November, German forces cut off the last highways and rail lines south of the city, and the Finnish encircled Leningrad from the North. The Russians therein were trapped.
The winter of 1941 was the one of the harshest in decades, with temperatures dipping to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. In less than a month, starvation took over the city. The city zoo became the meat and fish sections of a grocery store — after that was depleted, citizens turned to their household pets. Next came wallpaper paste, leather boiled into an edible jelly, and then came the tobacco dust.
While numbers range from hundreds to thousands and remain unconfirmed, a sizable amount of citizens resorted to cannibalizing the dead. The practice became so pertinent, the Leningrad police had to form a special division aimed specifically against cannibalism.
These stories are repulsive and these accounts are in no way an endorsement of cannibalism. However, it is important to address the existence of such acts in order gauge the scope of their desperation. As historian of the Donner Party Ethan Rarick wrote, these are stories of "hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous."