Archaeologists working at Historic Jamestowne discovered a skull of a 14-year-old girl that shows evidence of cannibalism. The scientists are working in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. (Courtesy of Historic Jamestowne)

Archaeologists and forensic scientists working with human remains recovered at Historic Jamestowne last summer reported Wednesday that their follow-up studies have turned up the gruesome first physical evidence of the cannibalism that took place during the Starving Time of 1609-10.

Analyzing the skull of a 14-year-old English girl found in a refuse pit filled with butchered horse and dog bones, they discovered multiple evidence of sharp cuts and chopping blows aimed at the woman's cranium, cheeks and mandible.

The location and number of the marks are consistent with the flesh and brain being removed, most likely for consumption.

"This person did not know how to butcher an animal. What we see is hesitancy and lack of experience," said forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

"But they were clearly interested in the cheek meat, the muscles of the throat and tongue and the brain."

Of about 300 English settlers living at James Fort in the winter of 1609, only about 60 survived disease, woefully inadequate food supplies and a persistent Indian siege that lasted into the spring.

Numerous accounts of cannibalism among the survivors surfaced soon after the arrival of a relief expedition. But the reliability of the accounts and the exact nature of what took place as the settlers struggled to find sustenance inside the fort's palisade walls have been debated by historians for years.

When the butchered skull was unearthed this past summer — found in a jumbled context of similarly uncommon butchered horse and dog bones — it provided the first physical evidence of the starving colonists' desperate efforts to stay alive.

"[Colonist] George Percy wrote that 'nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible — as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them,'" said historian and Colonial Williamsburg Vice President James Horn who is an expert on Jamestown's history.

"How many were cannibalized is unknown. But we don't believe this young woman was a lone case."

The discovery of the partial skull and mandible inside a cellar in the center of the fort was not the first time Jamestown archaeologists have unearthed human remains in contexts other than conventional burials.

They also have found butchered horse and dog bones in the past, including a huge deposit in a 1608 well that was filled in with refuse from the fort immediately after the Starving Time ended.

That sober association made Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeology Director William M. Kelso and his team doubly alert when the first fragments of unusual bones began to emerge from a trash-filled cellar last summer.

"Clearly, this sort of thing would only be done in times of hunger," he said, describing the colonists' forced decision to kill their horses and dogs.

"And when we found the human skull, the context of the discovery, the visible damage to the skull and the marks on the bones immediately made us realize it was unusual."

Shielded from public view, the remains were excavated and then sent to Owsley's lab, which has worked closely with the pioneering Jamestown excavation for nearly 20 years.

There, the renowned forensic anthropologist determined that the marks left by multiple cuts and chops to the bone differed significantly from the wounds that would be inflicted by scalping or errant shovels.

He also concluded that a second and more professional hand may have been at work in the clean, quick severing of a leg bone associated with the skull.

"Nobody saw anybody eat this young lady," Owsley said, noting that the victim was already dead from disease or starvation when she was butchered.

"But given the context in which the skull was found — and the multiple, multiple cuts that were made — there's not much doubt."