The Donner Party and Cannibalism: The Research Continues

I haven’t forgot about Australopithecus sediba – I just got carried away on the osteology and am rewriting the post. In the meantime I wanted to mention some research on a subject that I have written about previously namely, cannibalism and the Donner Party.

The new research picks up where the research I mentioned in the post, linked to above, left off. According to the press release:

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. A power analysis indicated that, statistically, Robbins and Gray can be 70 percent confident that if cannibalism made up a small fraction of the diet (less than 1 percent) at the site in the last few weeks of occupation, and if humans were processed in the same way animals were processed, at least one of the 85 bone fragments examined would be human.

So, what did the Donner family eat during that winter? Robbins’ team 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.

So, if there is no evidence of cannalbism where did the stories come from? Apparently, from the press who embellished and sensationalized the events. One interesting aspect to the story is mentioned in the press release and I can’t resist quoting it:

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

The research will be published in the July issue of American Antiquity and I can hardly wait.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rolando de Aguiar ✮, Raymond Ho. Raymond Ho said: The Donner Party and Cannibalism: The Research Continues via Afarensis. […]

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