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Populations of sturgeon (Acipenseridae) have experienced global declines, and in some cases extirpation, during the past century. In the current era of climate change and over-harvesting of fishery resources, climate models, based on uncertain boundary conditions, are being used to predict future effects on the Earth's biota. A collection of approximately 400-year-old Atlantic sturgeon spines from a midden in colonial Jamestown, VA, USA, allowed us to compare the age structure and growth rate for a pre-industrial population during a ‘mini-ice age’ with samples collected from the modern population in the same reach of the James River. Compared with modern fish, the colonial population was characterized by larger and older individuals and exhibited significantly slower growth rates, which were comparable with modern populations at higher latitudes of North America. These results may relate to higher population densities and/or colder water temperatures during colonial times.