Explorers 'ate their comrades'

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a scandal that Victorian Britain could not stomach. Stories that one of the great exploratory missions of the last century could have ended in cannabilism were swiftly dismissed, writes Cyril Dixon. Now, however, new evidence has emerged to support the theory that Sir John Franklin's men ate each other rather than starve on their doomed expedition to find the North-west Passage.

A Canadian academic claims to have shed new light on the fate of Sir John's men after the expedition foundered in Canada's Arctic around 1846. Anne Keenleyside, an anthropologist at McMaster University near Toronto completed a study of 150-year-old bones found on King William Island in the central Arctic, nearly 2,000 miles north of Toronto.

After examining 400 bones from eight Franklin crew members, she said incisions on the bones suggested knives had been used to hack the bodies apart. 'The evidence is strongly suggestive of cannibalism,' Ms Keenleyside said this weekend. 'The cuts themselves were clearly made by metal knives. The sheer number of cuts and the fact that a lot of cut marks were in the vicinity of joints are consistent with a pattern that they were intentionally cutting up individuals and severing limbs.'

Sir John and his crew of 128 left Britain in 1845 to search for the famed North-west Passage, a route from Europe to Asia through the far north of North America. After becoming trapped in ice, the team abandoned their ships and tried to head south again on foot. They vanished, and for years, nothing was known about their eventual fate. More than 40 subsequent expeditions searched for Franklin's crew.

'At the time, suggestions of cannibalism were met with outrage and a lot of people dismissed them entirely,' Ms Keenleyside said. She said she also found evidence of lead poisoning in the bones. The expedition took food in tin cans sealed with lead, an innovation at the time, and previous researchers speculated that lead poisoning muddled their brains.

Researchers will hunt for more bones at the site this summer and Ms Keenleyside hopes genetic testing will enable scientists to match the bones with hair samples from descendents of the expedition members living in Britain.