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Archaeologists Make Grisly Discovery About Starvation at Jamestown Settlement

May 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a grizzly addition to early American history.

Founded in 1607, Jamestown was America’s first permanent English settlement. The Virginia Company of London established the colony 60 miles north of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, naming the site “James Fort” after England’s King James I. But life there was anything but easy. Historians believe the settlers arrived during the worst drought in 800 years.

And disease, starvation, and conflicts with nearby Native Americans plagued the colonists. Accounts from the time tell of residents forced to eat dogs, cats, rodents, and even shoe leather to fend off starvation. And it appears it was even worse than that.

Researchers have now revealed evidence of cannibalism in the remains of a 14-year-old girl found in a trash pit at the colony site last summer.

Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley says cut marks on the cheekbones and skull of the girl they have named Jane support the theory she was butchered after her death for consumption.

DOUGLAS OWSLEY, Smithsonian Institute: From my experience working with prehistoric skeletons, where I have seen postmortem, meaning after-death, processing of remains, this is absolutely consistent with what we see in cannibalism and those types of cases.

JEFFREY BROWN: How Jane died remains unknown, but researchers say there was no evidence of murder.

In all, some 80 percent of the colonists and members of a relief fleet sent from England died before the situation stabilized in 1610.