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Scientists say they have hard evidence that settlers of the first English colony in America may have resorted to cannibalism to survive. They've recovered human bones from Jamestown, Virginia, that show signs of that. Written accounts from the colonists describe cannibalism during the starving time of 1609 to 1610, but until now, no one had the bones to prove it. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on what scientists think happened to a young girl at Jamestown. They call her Jane.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Of the hundreds of colonists living inside the Jamestown fort in 1609, only 60 survived that winter. The weather was harsh, and the hostile Indians were even harsher. At a press conference today at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, James Horn of the historical group Colonial Williamsburg quoted George Percy, leader of the colony at the time.

JAMES HORN: First, they ate their horses and then fed upon their dogs and cats, as well as rats, mice and snakes.

JOYCE: They even ate their shoes, and it seems one person. Last summer, Jamestown's chief archeologist, William Kelso, dug up a human skull and a few other bones, along with some food remains. These bones were different from others he'd found.

WILLIAM KELSO: The damage to the skull and finding it with the other food remains brought on serious thoughts that this was indeed evidence of survival cannibalism.

JOYCE: Kelso took the bones to the Smithsonian's Doug Owsley, a renowned forensic anthropologist. Owsley determined that they belonged to a girl, aged 14. They don't know anything about her, but they have given her a name: Jane. Owsley found numerous cut marks on the cranium and jaw, all apparently done after the girl had died.

DOUG OWSLEY: There are clear chops to the forehead. They are very closely spaced.

JOYCE: Vertical cuts evenly spaced, not wounds usually made in a struggle, but more likely made on a corpse.

OWSLEY: There are four chops to the back of the cranium.

JOYCE: The assailant was trying to open her skull. In a very unskillful way, Owsley notes.

OWSLEY: There is one final chop that shows the complete fracturing.

JOYCE: It split the skull in half. Owsley also found marks on the jaw that looked like sawing and fractures made by a knife point and more cut marks on a leg bone. With the written accounts, Owsley says the evidence now points to cannibalism.

OWSLEY: Given the context of all of this put together and the multiple, multiple cuts, this is not anything that is done out of spite or vengeance or anything like that, it is I think a very clear intent.

JOYCE: The team has glued the skull back together and also sculpted a recreation of what Jane would have looked like in the flesh, which they displayed today at the press conference - English, high cheekbones, pretty. Smithsonian anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide was on the team.

KARI BRUWELHEIDE: When you have evidence of an event that's written down and recorded and talked about by survivors 400 years ago, I mean, it added weight to history. I mean, it truly is kind of a special type of case.

JOYCE: Special also because archeologists are skeptical about claims of cannibalism. Archeologist Jonathan Haas, at the Field Museum in Chicago, says cannibalism science demands several types of evidence. The opening of the skull and the historical accounts are two good ones, but he says the other cut marks do not prove cannibalism, only violence to a girl's body.

JONATHAN HAAS: If I find cut marks showing the defleshing from the long bones, if I see cracking of the long bones, if I see cooking, then I can begin to much more definitively say that there was cannibalism being practiced.

JOYCE: Given that this was England's first successful colony in the New World and the nature of the claim, it's likely that this finding will generate a lively scientific debate. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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