But it was clear to Owsley immediately that there were signs of cannibalism.
"This does represent a clear case of dismemberment of the body and removing of tissues for consumption," he said.
It was the work of someone not skilled at butchering, Owsley said, indicating a sense of desperation.
The bones show a bizarre attempt to open the skull, he said. Animal brains and facial tissue were desirable meat in the 17th century.
The archaeologists are publishing their findings in a new book but decided against waiting to announce the discovery.
The human skull will be placed on display at Jamestown, and a sign will warn visitors of the room's content. At the Smithsonian, curators will display a computer-generated reconstruction of the girl's face in an exhibit about life at Jamestown.
Owsley said archaeology is helping to fill in details from a time when few records were kept - details that won't likely be found in history books.
Kelso, whose archaeology team discovered the bones, said the girl's bones will be displayed to help tell a story, not to be a spectacle. Through the remains, scientists traced her likely origin to the coast of Southern England.
"We found her in a trash dump, unceremoniously trashed and cannibalized, and now her story can be told," Kelso said. "People will be able to empathize with the time and history and think to themselves, as I do: What would I do to stay alive?"
At Jamestown, officials removed a large tarp covering the site where the remains were found for visitors to see. Tourists were told Wednesday of the discovery.
"Oh, wow," said Kim Reyes, who was on a field trip escorting fourth grade students from Alexandria, Va. "We all know the harsh conditions they were here in, but I didn't think it was that bad."
Pam Nagle's mouth dropped when she heard the announcement. The Charlottesville, Va., resident was visiting Jamestown with her children, ages 7 and 10, and her in-laws. Nagle said she had never heard any mention of cannibalism at Jamestown before.
"I was really curious whether it was pre- or post-mortem. I was really glad he said post-mortem," she said. "There was a level of desperation, but maybe perhaps it wasn't as severe as it could've been."