Reconstructing Early 17th Century Estuarine Drought Conditions from Jamestown Oysters

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Chesapeake Bay, Crassostrea virginica, environmental reconstruction, oxygen isotope, scleroarchaeology

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Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) were a central component of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem in 1607 when European settlers established Jamestown, VA, thefirst permanent English settlement in North America. These estuarine bivalves were an important food resource during the early years of the James Fort (Jamestown) settlement while the colonists were struggling to survive in the face of inadequate supplies and a severe regional drought. Although oyster shells were discarded as trash after the oysterswere eaten, the environmental and ecological data recorded in the bivalve geochemistry during shell deposition remain intact over centuries, thereby providing a unique window into conditions during the earliest Jamestown years. We compare oxygen isotope data from these 17th century oyster shells with modern shells to quantify and contrast estuarine salinity, season of oyster collection, and shell provenance during Jamestown colonization (1609–1616) and the 21st century. Data show that oysters were collected during an extended drought between fall 1611 and summer 1612. The drought shifted the 14 psu isohaline above Jamestown Island, facilitating individual oyster growth and extension of oyster habitat upriver toward the colony, thereby enhancing local oyster food resources. Data from distinct well layers suggest that the colonists also obtained oysters from reefs near Chesapeake Bay to augment oyster resources near Jamestown Island. The oyster shell season of harvest reconstructions suggest that these data come from either a 1611 well with a very short useful period or an undocumented older well abandoned by late 1611.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 107, issue 23, p. 10549-10554