Scurvy wiped out nearly half of the colonists who established one of the first French settlements in North America 400 years ago, scientists confirmed on Monday.
The colony existed in 1604 and 1605 on St. Croix Island off present-day Calais, Maine, and St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Nearly half of the 79 settlers died during the harsh winter, prompting survivors to move to what is now Nova Scotia in the summer of 1605.
It was one of the earliest European outposts on the North Atlantic coast of North America, preceding Jamestown by three years and Plymouth by 16 years.
Researchers at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor, Maine, said they used a process called multi-detector computed tomography to examine the bones of colonists disinterred in 1969. They were scanned before being reburied on the island in 2003.
"We were able to visualize the entire skull from every angle, inside and out. Scans of the skull and leg bones revealed a thick hard palate in the mouth and an extra layer of bony tissue on the femur and tibia, which we believe resulted from the internal bleeding associated with scurvy," said John Benson, director of medical imaging at the hospital.
His report was released in Chicago in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
Scurvy, a fatal disease characterized by weakness, anemia, gum disease and internal bleeding, is caused a lack of vitamin C, which is found in citrus fruits, tomatoes and some vegetables.
Based on cut marks found in one of the skulls, researchers also said they think colonists on Saint Croix Island conducted autopsies to try to find out what was killing their fellow settlers.
Samuel de Champlain, who was part of the St. Croix expedition headed by nobleman-courtier Pierre Dugua Sieur de Mons, described in gruesome detail the symptoms of the disease, which he called land-sickness or scurvy.
"There developed in the mouths of those who had it, large pieces of excess fungus flesh which caused a great rot," he wrote in his travel journal. "Their teeth barely held in place, and could be removed with the fingers without causing pain.
"This excess flesh was often cut away, which caused them to bleed extensively from the mouth. Afterwards, severe pain developed in the arms and legs, which became swollen and very hard and covered with spots like fleabites."
The 6.5-acre (2.6-hectare) island in the St. Croix River, which divides the United States and Canada, is now an international historic site.