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Early US colonists resorted to cannibalism, new evidence shows

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Starving residents of the first permanent US settlement consumed one another to survive, according to a new analysis of recently unearthed bones by anthropologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The bones were found in Virginia, at the site of the Jamestown colony, which was established in 1607 by 104 settlers. In 1609, a shortage of provisions, combined with drought and rampant disease, wiped out an estimated 80 percent of the colony's residents. Experts had already determined that the settlers consumed dogs, cats, and even rats to sustain themselves, but newly unearthed human bones — those of a teenage girl — add compelling evidence to earlier speculation that they had also eaten their fellow colonists.

"Human teeth and then a partial human skull."

"We found a deposit of refuse that contained butchered horse and dog bones. That was only done in times of extreme hunger," said research leader William Kelso. "As we excavated, we found human teeth and then a partial human skull."

The girl, who is estimated to have been 14 when she died, has been given the name "Jane" by researchers involved in the project. They're not yet sure whether Jane died of natural causes or was killed with the specific intent of human consumption, but researcher Douglas Owsley notes that "penetrating" knife cuts were used to crack Jane's skull and remove her brain. "The clear intent was to remove the facial tissue and the brain for consumption," Owlsley said. "These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used."

Researchers are now looking for additional human remains that might help them determine just how ubiquitous cannibalism may have been among the Jamestown colonists.