A recent discovery of human bones in the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement proves that the first permanent English settlers in North America turned to cannibalism during the winter of 1609-10, known to historians as the Starving Time, according to the BBC.
The skull and tibia of a teenage girl, believed to be approximately 14-years-old, were found in a pile of debris located within James Fort where the settlers struggled to survive that horrible winter. After close examination, scientists say they’ve found unusual cuts on the bones consistent with meat butchering.
"There were numerous chops and cuts - chops to the forehead, chops to the back of the skull and also a puncture to the left side of the head that was used to essentially pry off that side," said Dr. Doug Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. "The purpose was to extract the brain. The marks also indicate that the tongue and facial tissue were removed.”
“The evidence is absolutely consistent with dismemberment and defleshing of this body," he added.
Considered America's first permanent English colony, James Fort was founded in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. According to the Washington Post, about 300 people inhabited the fort in November 1609. By spring, there were only 60. The girl was most likely a servant, but could possibly have been the daughter of a colonist.
Earlier documents have suggested that the desperate colonists resorted to cannibalism during the harsh winter, but Smithsonian researchers believe this discovery offers the first scientific proof. These previous documents include reports of corpses being exhumed and eaten, a husband killing his wife and salting her flesh (for which he was executed), and the mysterious disappearance of foraging colonists.
According to Dr. Owsley, “The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption. These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used."
Cuts to the girl's bones also indicate the work was hesitant — whoever performed the dismemberment was not a skilled butcher — and it is still unknown whether the girl had died from natural causes or was murdered, but her dismemberment would have occured very soon after she had died.
Amazingly, enough of the girl’s skull exists that CT scans were able to produce a reconstruction of her head, which will be displayed at the Archaearium, the museum at the James Fort archaeological site.