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CSI Jamestown: Anthropologists lay out evidence of colonial cannibalism

New archaeological evidence reveals that settlers at the Jamestown colony resorted to cannibalism during the "starving time" in the winter of 1609-1610. NBC's Ali Weinberg reports. 

Experts have provided the grisly goods to back up 17th-century accounts of cannibalism during the Jamestown colony's "starving time" — including a skull that shows signs of being chopped at and pried apart.

"Our team has discovered partial human remains before, but the location of the discovery, visible damage to the skull and marks on the bones immediately made us realize this finding was unusual," Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in Virginia, said in a news release issued Wednesday. Specimens from the Jamestown site were laid out during a Washington news conference.

Written accounts described acts of cannibalism during the winter of 1609-1610, when sickness, starvation and attacks from native tribes in the area put the two-year-old Virginia settlement to its sternest test. Scores of the colonists who crowded inside James Fort died that winter. One of the accounts described a husband who killed his pregnant wife and salted her flesh for storage and consumption. (The husband was executed for the crime.)

There was no reason to doubt the accounts, but in the course of their decades-long excavation, archaeologists were on the lookout for remains that might tell more of the story behind Jamestown's hardships. They found the evidence in the form of a partial human skull and other bones lying in a 17th-century trash deposit. Kelso enlisted the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History to sort out the clues. Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia helped provide historical context.

'Jane of Jamestown'
Based on an analysis of the bones — including the skull and its teeth, as well as the size of a tibia and bone growth in a knee joint — experts determined that the remains came from a 14-year-old female, nicknamed "Jane." The isotopic distribution of elements in the bones suggested that she consumed a European diet of wheat and meat.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Doug Owsley, division head for physical anthropology at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, displays the skull and a facial reconstruction for "Jane of Jamestown" during a news conference at the museum in Washington on Wednesday.

Carolyn Kaster / AP

Strike marks are seen on the skull of "Jane of Jamestown" at the National Museum of Natural History.

The grisliest findings were reflected in the wounds to the head: The chief of the museum's division of physical anthropology, Douglas Owsley, identified chops to the forehead and the back of the cranium to open the head. Knife cuts on the jaw and the cheekbone could have been made during removal of the flesh. Other markings suggest that the head's left side was punctured and pried apart.

The scientists' conclusion: Jane was butchered for her meat.

"She was almost certainly dead when she was cannibalized," Jim Horn, Colonial Williamsburg's vice president of research and historical interpretation, told NBC News. "The way the cuts are configured on the skull points to the fact that she was dead. if she was not, there would have been more signs of a struggle, and the marks would have been more irregular."

Based on the bone analysis and the disposition of the remains at the site, researchers believe Jane arrived in Jamestown in August 1609, just months before the crisis. She might have been a maidservant, or the daughter of a colonist. Chances are that she died in January or February of 1610, from either sickness or starvation, Horn said.

"The 'starving time' was brought about by a trifecta of disasters: disease, a serious shortage of provisions, and a full-scale siege by the Powhatans that cut off Jamestown from outside relief," he said in Wednesday's news release. "Survival cannibalism was a last resort; a desperate means of prolonging life at a time when the settlement teetered on the brink of extinction."

When Lord De La Warr and his relief party arrived in Jamestown in the spring of 1610, he ordered the "cleansing" of the ruined settlement. "It must have looked like a charnel house when he arrived," Horn said. That's probably how Jane's remains came to be deposited amid a trash heap in an abandoned cellar, he said.

Jane's legacy
Jamestown went on to become the Virginia Colony's capital from 1619 to 1699. In the late 17th century, the settlement was devastated by a series of fires. At the dawn of the 18th century, Virginia's capital was moved to Williamsburg, and old Jamestown faded away. Decades later, the descendants of Jamestown's settlers played their part in the creation of the United States of America.

Researchers have not matched up Jane's bones with a specific member of the Jamestown colony, and although DNA samples have been saved for future analysis, they say there's little hope of identifying modern relatives for comparative genetic testing. But the excavation continues, and Jane's remains provide graphic evidence of Jamestown's desperation.

Horn acknowledges that the story of Jane has a grisly fascination to it, but he says there's a broader significance as well. "It revolves around what it took to successfully establish European colonies in the New World," he told NBC News. "In the early phase of European colonization of the Americas, most colonies actually failed. They failed for the kinds of reasons that we discovered at Jamestown. ... Most colonies lasted no more than six to 12 months. What we're looking in the case of Jamestown is a remarkable story of survival and endurance."

Researchers discuss the forensic evidence to back up accounts of cannibalism at the Jamestown Colony during the "starving time" of 1609-1610.

More about Jamestown:

An exhibition that tells the story of Jane and the survival of Jamestown, England's first permanent settlement in America, is due to open May 3 at Historic Jamestowne in Virginia. Jane's bones will be put on exhibit temporarily, and eventually they will be "respectfully reinterred," Horn said. The facility has also produced a book and DVD on the subject, titled "Jane." However, details of the discovery have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.