Early settlers resorted to cannibalism at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, researchers said after unveiling forensic analysis on the bones of a 14-year-old girl.
Facing a period of starvation in the winter of 1609-1610 when about 80 percent of the colonists died, some apparently tried to dig into the brain of a child who had already died, said anthropologists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The girl's skull showed signs of awkward attempts to extract the brain matter, said Douglas Owsley, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist who analyzed the skull and tibia of the girl who came to Virginia from England.
"The desperation and overwhelming circumstances faced by the James Fort colonists during the winter of 1609-1610 are reflected in the postmortem treatment of this girl's body," said Owsley.
"The recovered bone fragments have unusually patterned cuts and chops that reflect tentativeness, trial and complete lack of experience in butchering animal remains," he added.
"Nevertheless, the clear intent was to dismember the body, removing the brain and flesh from the face for consumption."
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The bones were excavated in 2012, and were considered unusual because of the high degree of fragmentation. The girl's teeth and parts of her skull were found as part of an excavation that included butchered horse and dog bones.
The remains provide the first physical evidence that cannibalism did occur at Jamestown. Scholars have long speculated that it was likely because of the unusually harsh conditions the settlers encountered on arrival.
The colony was founded by just over 100 settlers in 1607. Their numbers dwindled to 38 after the first nine months, due to starvation, drought and disease, and left them highly dependent on resupply ships.
Written references to cannibalism have previously been found, according to Smithsonian magazine which reprinted part of an old letter by George Percy, president of Jamestown during what was known as the Starving Time.
He described how the settlers began to eat horses and other beasts, before resorting to dogs, cats, rats and mice and eventually dead bodies from graves.
"And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes."
Researchers do not know who ate her, or what she died of, though they speculate that multiple people were involved since her shin bone shows signs of a more skilled butcher than whoever tried to break into her skull.
"These people were in dire circumstances. So any flesh that was available would have been used," Owsley said, according to Smithsonian magazine.