What Did Virginia’s Jamestown Colonists Eat?

So far, researchers have found remains of horses, rats and snakes in a well that dates back to the Starving Time

A Day in the Life of the Archaeological Dig at James Fort

In 2006, archaeologists in Jamestown, Virginia, uncovered a 17th-century groundwater well at James Fort, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America. Now, as Andrew Harris reports for the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, they're digging through the well to see what they can learn about the the Fort’s history and the people who lived there.

The team sorting through the well artifacts is part of a group archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, which has been at work since 1994, when the 1607 James Fort was uncoveredThe well was only operational for a short time before the colonists began filling it with trash and food waste. By sorting through such artifacts, the researchers are hoping to better understand what was on the dinner table hundreds of years ago.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to use this information to fill in an important missing piece of the puzzle of Jamestown’s history, which is what is going on in the sixteen-teens,” Jamestown Rediscovery Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett tells Harris. “We know a lot about 1607 through 1610, we know a lot about the 1620s on, but this has been a period that has been largely absent from our record to date.”

While the project is still in its early stages, archaeologists have already uncovered some 30,000 animal bones in just one of the six layers of soil. What were the colonists tucking into? They had a "taste for turkey," Harris writes.

The turkey is a native bird to North America, but the gobblers have a long history of domestication. Some of the earliest evidence of domestication goes back to the Four Corners region of the Colorado Plateau nearly 2,000 years ago and Guatemala between 300 B.C. to 100 A.D. Native Americans were also likely in the turkey taming business fairly early as well, with evidence of domestication as far back as 1200  to 1400 A.D., Grennan Milliken writes for Motherboard. But it's unclear exactly where the James Fort birds came from; they could have been birds domesticated by Native Americans, or they could have been hunted from the abundant stocks of wild turkeys.

Times for colonists were not always easy, however. The well also harbors layers of soil with abundant remains of horses, rats and even venomous snake—less preferred meals for early Jamestown settlers. Archaeologists believe that these remains likely date back to a period known as the Starving Time, which took place between 1609 and 1610. During this period, a drought and a lack of supplies nearly wiped out the colony’s population, according to Historic Jamestowne, and they were forced to turn to alternative food sources.

By correlating their food finds with historical documents, archaeologists hope to gain insight into events figure out the events that took place during this period, reports Josh Lowe at Newsweek. “When that diet changes, that should indicate that something is going on,” Bassett tells the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. "People don’t just randomly change their diet, particularly in a setting like this.”

For example, researchers found cattle bones in a layer of soil that dates to 1610. From historical documents, the team discovered that early colonists rarely ate beef before that time. Live cattle were not shipped from England until 1610 or 1611.

Researchers hope their findings will help them figure out when precisely the well the was constructed—and garner further insights into the lives of these early settlers.

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