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    No Evidence For Donner Party Cannibalism, Anthropologists Say
    By News Staff | April 15th 2010 12:00 AM | 2 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    The 84 members of the Donner Party, trapped by a Sierra Nevada snowstorm on their way to California, did not resort to cannibalism, according to a new analysis of bones found at their Alder Creek campsite.

    Instead of each other, anthropologists say the Donner Party probably ate cattle, deer, horse and dog and did their best to maintain a civilized lifestyle in an otherwise harsh setting.

    Details of the analysis will appear in the July issue of American Antiquity.

    The Donner Party has long been infamous for reportedly resorting to cannibalism after becoming trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California for months during the winter of 1846-1847.

    The party became stranded after a series of bad decisions and misfortunes caused numerous delays on their westward migration route and left them attempting to cross the mountains into California just as the first snows were falling in early October 1846.

    In 2003, archaeologists uncovered a hearth during the excavation of the Donner family’s campsite. Within the hearth, they found thousands of tiny burned fragments of bone, most measuring less than a quarter inch in diameter. A preliminary analysis of the bones in 2006 indicated that there were no human bones from the hearth.

    The majority of bone fragments were so small and so delicate that they would crumble if subjected to thin sectioning, but there were about 250 larger, sturdier pieces of bone that showed evidence of cutting, chopping and boiling. Of these, 55 additional fragments were studied.

    The team produced thin sections from these specimens and examined them using a microscope, measuring each basic structural unit and characterizing the tissue types. From this work, they determined that humans were not among the food refuse examined.

    So, what did the Donner family eat during that winter?  Researchers identified the remains as cattle, deer, horse and dog. While the historical record had indicated that cattle were the principle means of subsistence during that winter, there was previously no record that the Donner family also successfully hunted deer despite the 20 to 30 feet of snow on the ground that winter. The historical record does indicate that relief parties in February brought horses to the camps and that a few were left behind. There was no record of the horses being consumed and no mention of eating dog.

    In all, 47 people lived to tell the tale: 11 men and 36 women and children. The survivors fiercely denied allegations of cannibalism and one man even filed a defamation suit immediately upon reaching Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento. Although the court ruled in his favor, he was forever known to local residents as Keseberg the Cannibal. The voices of the survivors of the Donner Party ordeal have long been overwhelmed by the spectacular imagery of a legend that swiftly took on a life of its own. Their descendants are still today affected by the stigma of this tale.

    The archaeological record provides a new picture of the party’s activities. In the trash and debris left around the hearth in the spring of 1847, archaeologists found pieces of slate and shards of broken china. These pieces of slate and crockery around the hearth suggest an attempt to maintain a sense of a “normal life,” a family intent on maintaining a routine of lessons, to preserve the dignified manners from another time and place, a refusal to accept the harsh reality of the moment, and a hope that the future was coming.

    Comments

    the 84 members of the Donner Party, trapped by a Sierra Nevada snowstorm on their way to California, did not resort to cannibalism, according to a new analysis of bones found at their Alder Creek campsite.

    OK, that's NOT what the study says, but it is what some of the bone scientists reportedly concluded, at least until they retracted it April 20 2010 within days of setting the falsehoods into motion. The bottom line is that the analysis of some bones from a single fire pit in ONE of the presumed Donner camps revealed only animal bones. That's it. No conclusions about the cannibalism in general -- particularly whether or not it occurred -- can be drawn from the bone analysis. The irresponsible and inaccurate press release has been withdrawn from the AU university web site and a corrected release added. But the damage has been done. The inaccurate headlines and stories will persist on the web for years. The documentary evidence of cannibalism of the last 160 years, including many, many contemporaneity accounts, is overwhelming. No physical evidence has yet been found. But that's not a very sexy headline, so the AU folks spiced it up a bit with some fantasy and sloppy research. If the authors of the current stories had bothered to actually interview people who have studied the Donner tragedy for decades, the misinformation could have been nipped in the bud. Now it's gone around the world at the speed of light before the truth has gotten its boots on, to paraphrase the proverb.

    Hank
    The irresponsible and inaccurate press release has been withdrawn from the AU university web site and a corrected release added.
    How do you mean?   The release still says "The team produced thin sections from these specimens and examined them using a microscope, measuring each basic structural unit and characterizing the tissue types. From this work, they determined that humans were not among the food refuse examined" just as it did before.

    The big change in the releases was deleting the paragraph that starts with "The legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists, who embellished the tales based on their own Victorian macabre sensibilities and their desire to sell more newspapers."   There was no meaningful change to the gist of the data, just removing hyperbole and speculation as to the motives of journalists in that time.

    The entire century is filled with stories that are difficult to separate mythology from fact - the West lent itself to tall tales.    If you choose to believe people who say cannibalism occurred over survivors that said it did not, it seems to be a matter of choice.  There is no way to know and you can choose to dispute the power analysis by these researchers but there is no better method at this time.