Campfire cannibals? New bones bring scientists to the mountains of California to piece together a better picture of doomed pioneers
By Trine Tsouderos
A newly discovered cache of bones may shed light on one of the most ghoulish and enduring mysteries of the West – whether members of the Donner party resorted to cannibalism during their snowbound months of starvation atop the Sierra Nevada, and if so, how they carried out the macabre deed.
Armed with the latest high-tech forensic tools, scientists are poring over fragments of buttons, mirrors and teacups, hoping to develop the most detailed accounting yet of those final days, the dark end to a grueling cross-country journey that began in Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 1846.
The team of scientists and scholars says its analysis will offer the first concrete proof of what happened. If cannibalism took place, team members want to gain a clearer picture of who engaged in the taboo practice as well as better explain why so many died.
The team members also hope to humanize the men, women and children involved in one of the most gruesome episodes in the history of the 19th century American frontier.
”There is nothing more powerful than decorated teacup shards coming out of the earth,” said
University of Montana historical archaeologist Kelly Dixon, who is co-directing the dig in the Tahoe National Forest, about 80 miles northeast of Sacramento, Calif. ”Instantly, these objects provide the vision of someone sitting around the campfire sipping on a teacup.”
”To establish cannibalism, you look for the ‘three Bs’ – burning, breakage and butchery,” said G. Richard Scott, an anthropologist at the University of Nevada, at Reno, and a member of the dig team, which includes archaeologists, anthropologists and other specialists from a half-dozen universities.
”The burning is when the bone has been charred to some extent. The butchery is cut-marks and marks, and the breakage is where . . . a heavy stone smashes open the bone to get the marrow.”
Archaeologists also will be checking for a fourth ”B,” boiling, which can be established by finding ”pot polish” – microscopic smoothness at the ends of bones caused by rolling around in boiling water.
”Cannibalism is the best-known feature of the Donner party, but it is the least understood,” said Kristin Johnson, the team’s historian.
The Donner party story, splashed across newspapers as soon as the survivors limped off the mountain, began in April 1846 when George Donner, a successful farmer in his 60s, his wife, Tamsen, and five daughters left Springfield. Along with 24 others, they joined thousands of pioneers in a historic 2,500-mile trek to California, passing through what is now called Emigration Canyon near Salt Lake City.
But they steered onto an unproven and disastrous ”shortcut” in what is now Wyoming. The exhausted Donner party wagon train, which now numbered about 80 pioneers, reached the Sierra Nevada in October.
Disaster struck in the form of snow that stranded the travelers in the mountains for a brutal winter with few supplies. The last of the 45 survivors were rescued in late April. All five Donner daughters endured the winter, but not their parents. In 2003, Dixon and University of Oregon archaeologist Julie Schablitsky, the dig co-director, began examining a site with their team in Tahoe National Forest identified in the 1990s by archaeologists as the area where Donner and his family made their last camp.
They eventually unearthed a earth with the shattered detritus of that desperate winter, the largest cache of bones and artifacts ever found by archaeologists immersed in the Donner party story.
”We have fragments of teacups. A writing slate. Bottle fragments from condiments, buttons from people’s clothing,” Dixon said. ”When you begin to look at these collectively, you are reminded they were normalizing their situation. . . . The mere existence of these artifacts alone has the power to revise the story.”
Among the most valuable finds are those bone chips, thousands of them, many charred, most smaller than a thumbnail.
Guy Tasa, a member of the dig and a human osteologist at the University of Oregon, will sort through the fragments and try to identify which are human. That’s easy when the pieces of bone are large, but with tiny bits, it’s very difficult, he said.
”I am hoping something out of these thousands and thousands of pieces of bone will be human,” Tasa said. The largest pieces are a couple of inches long. ”Still very small,” he said.
Some pieces thought to be human will be sent for mitochondrial DNA testing – analysis specially used to detect genetic material in degraded tissue – which may identify which person it belonged to by comparing it to the genetics of living Donner descendants.
After the bones are sorted and identified, archaeologists will attempt to tell what happened to them. Were they cooked? Boiled? Broken open to gain access to life-giving marrow?
Many of the fragments show evidence of being cooked in a fire for a long time, Tasa said.
”It does indicate they were cooking some of the bone, either with meat on it, or doing what we would call bone grease manufacture,” he said. That’s when people process bone to extract the last bit of nutrients from it, sometimes making a broth from it, he said.
The price of survival, however, could be devastating. Some Donner party survivors refused to speak about their ordeal, and others were branded as ”cannibals.”
”There was a social abuse,” Scott said. ”It gave them a bad name.”
The will to survive and the lengths people will go to do so fascinate Scott and remain an essential part of the Donner party story.
Exactly what those harrowing months in the snow looked, felt, smelled and ultimately tasted like is what archaeologists and scientists hope to discover as they comb through the remains of that final camp in the Sierra Nevada.
”We will never have all of our questions answered about the Donner party,” Dixon said. ”As much as we can, we will come up with a more complete picture. We would love to be uncovering the truth.”