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Early Jamestown Colonists were Cannibals, Apparently

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By Lauren Hansen

The first English settlements in the so-called New World were far from glamorous. Indeed, early settlers in Jamestown, Va., were often starving, and forced to eat dogs, mice, and shoe leather to survive devastating winters. A few written accounts take things one gruesome step further and suggest that some colonists even ate their own dead.

Those cannibal rumors, it turns out, are true. A group of archeologists have found proof of our ancestors' stomach-turning eating habits, in the form of a mangled skull that is "absolutely consistent with dismemberment and de-fleshing."

In August 2012, a group of archaeologists digging around a debris-filled cellar on Jamestown Island—a 22.5-acre peninsula just north of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay—came across the remains of a 14-year-old girl. They also found horse, dog, and squirrel bones, but the real find was the girl's skull, lower jaw, and leg bone—all of which have the distinct marks of an ax or a cleaver.

On the girl's forehead, we can see the choppy, almost hesitant initial markings that failed to pierce the bone. But when turned over, the back of the skull reveals the more effective blow that split the skull all the way to the base.

The forehead and left side of the skull before it was pieced together. Four rough cuts at the top are likely the initial attempts to hack open the girl's head. Photo courtesy Don Hurlbert/Smithsonian/Getty Images.

There are markings along the jaw line that indicate the tongue and facial tissue were removed. There is also a puncture to the left side of the head that was likely used, in a bizarre fashion, to pry it off and extract the brain.

Scientists say this skull provides definitive evidence that colonists were haphazardly trying to remove the facial tissue and brain for consumption. In the 17th century, such flesh from an animal, say, a hog, for example, was actually considered a delicacy, which is why these desperate settlers might have gone straight for the girl's head.

And before you get too woozy: Yes, the girl was dead before they started hacking into her skull. The markings indicate there was no struggle. However, the feast likely went down soon after she died.

"The attempt to [remove] the brain is something you would need to do very quickly because brains do not preserve well," says Dr. Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist involved with the dig.

So, what could have happened to this poor girl? Let's investigate:

In 1607, a ragtag group of English adventurers set out to create the first colony in the so-called New World. The explorers landed on Jamestown Island on May 14, establishing the Virginia English colony.

The swampy land was filled with disease-ridden mosquitos, and the settlers didn't have much time to plant ahead of the winter. The newbies were also under constant siege by Native Americans, who had colonized this land long before, and were none too pleased about their new invasive neighbors.

In 1609, a second fleet of ships departed from Plymouth, England, with reinforcements. Seven out of the nine ships managed to survive a deadly hurricane and landed at Jamestown in mid-August. It was on one of these ships, researchers say, that the girl, whom they have named "Jane," likely arrived.

Unfortunately, the new arrivals were more of a hassle than a help. The ships' crews hoarded what food they brought. Jamestown was already suffering from the worst drought in 800 years, and the meager crops the colony managed to grow over the summer were hardly enough to feed the township that was now up to about 300 people.

By October, people were hungry, and life was only getting worse. The subsequent winter would come to be known as The Starving Time.

Studying the fragments of Jane's skull, researchers found an enriched "nitrogen profile," evidence that the girl was at least at one time well nourished, with a diet rich in protein. This suggests that she came from a relatively high class, and that she thus didn't make the trip alone. But with no fresh meat or produce, Jane and her fellow settlers were forced to eat their horses, dogs, cats, rats, and snakes. Some would have even gnawed on the soles of their shoes to satiate the endless hunger.

One contemporary writing tells of a man who killed and ate his pregnant wife. The colony's leader, Capt. John Smith, records the miserable news:

"One amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed, as he well deserved," Smith wrote. "Now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado'd [barbecued], I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of." [Fox News]

We may never know how many colonists were eaten as the wretched weeks turned to months. But now, thanks to the discovery of Jane, scientists know for certain that it did happen.

After six months of starvation, only 60 colonists survived. Defeated, the meager pack abandoned Jamestown and headed down the James River, intent on returning to England. But relief, leadership, and the seed of our future nation arrived in the form of Lord De La Warr (Yep: Delaware would be his namesake) to stop them. De La Warr, his relief fleet, and 150 new settlers, led the colonists back to the fort where the foundations were laid for a prosperous and cannibal-free future.

The remains of "Jane" as well as her reconstruction will be on display in Jamestown. And with plenty left to forage at the original site, archaeologists will continue to investigate Jane's untimely end, as well as her real identity.

SourcesBBC, Fox NewsHistoricJamestown.orgJamestown Rediscovery Project, The Washington Post


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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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