The Jamestown hack job

Myers Mermel Manhattan Real Estate Owner/Investor
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Like many people, I like a little sensationalism in my morning newspaper. It gets the day started. However, this morning I was disappointed to see sensationalism darken the courageous and honorable reputation of our Virginia colonists at Jamestown.

The significance of one “Jane of Jamestown” is at issue. Her skull, newly discovered in an ancient trash pit, is all the proof needed for some anthropologists to declare that the Jamestown colonists practiced cannibalism during the hard winter of 1609-1610. While it may be apparent that Jane’s cracked skull was hacked with a hard blade, her jaw was cut with a knife, and her leg was chopped, that unfortunately is all we know.

In their press release, the Jamestown anthropologists declared these marks consistent with “survival cannibalism.” But are they really? If there are cutting marks on the jaw, where the corner of the mouth would be, it might be reasonable to expect that an effort to pull the skin away from the face would include similar marks at both the eyes and ears. We only have some inconclusive evidence of that. We have a leg that was chopped for some reason. Do we have any other bones of hers that show cutting marks consistent with attempts to remove flesh? Do the animal bones next to her remains in the pit show marks of butchering? Are there any other skeletons in addition to hers discovered with cut marks? Could she have been a victim of domestic violence? Could she have been attacked by Indians and her corpse dragged back to the pit to be disposed? Why was she in a trash pit in the first place? Was she the hidden victim of a colonial “Silence of the Lambs” killer?

Most importantly, other than this one skull and partial leg, do we have a large number of other skulls or skeletons that show cutting marks? No. We know from historical records that one Jamestown man did cannibalize his wife, but his act was discovered and he was executed. Two points make a line, but two instances don’t make a pattern. Without other evidence, Jane is an isolated instance and one data point.

Moreover, given the lack of overwhelming proof that Jane was eaten by other colonists, why were other alternatives not mentioned by the Jamestown anthropologists? That’s not good scholarship.

While the anthropologists’ sensationalism may sell tickets to the Jamestown exhibits this summer, the only thing that was undeniably cannibalized at this point was the reputation of 6,000 of our colonial fathers and mothers.

Myers Mermel received an MA in American History from Columbia University and expects an MDiv. from Yale Divinity School.

Myers Mermel