WASHINGTON, May 1 (UPI) -- The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia's Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable, researchers say, as evidence shows they resorted to cannibalism.
In addition to the remains of of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the "Starving Time," a recent excavation at the site uncovered bones that sell of the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old girl, Smithsonian.com reported Wednesday.
Douglas Owsley is a Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the bones found by archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, said they represent the first direct evidence of cannibalism at Jamestown, the oldest permanent English colony in the Americas.
"Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there," Owsley said while presenting his finding at the National Museum of Natural History. "Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption."
The first hard physical evidence that cannibalism occurred came in 2012 then the girl's remains were uncovered by a team led by archaeologists William Kelso.
"We found a deposit of refuse that contained butchered horse and dog bones," he said. "That was only done in times of extreme hunger. As we excavated, we found human teeth and then a partial human skull."
The researchers determined the remains were of a female, roughly 14 years old and of British ancestry, and cut marks on the jaw, face and forehead of the skull, along with those on the shinbone, are telltale signs of cannibalism, Owsley said.
There's no evidence of murder, he said, adding he suspects it was a case in which starving colonists simply ate the one remaining food available to them despite cultural taboos.
"I don't think that they killed her, by any stretch," he said. "It's just that they were so desperate, and so hard-pressed, that out of necessity this is what they resorted to."