Cannibalism of US pioneers thrown into doubt

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The story of the Donner Party is one of the most haunting to come out of the settlement of the American West: a group of pioneers driven to such desperation in the snow-driven Sierra Nevada mountains of California that they resorted to feeding off the flesh of their dead companions.

The horrors of the winter of 1846-7 quickly became the sensation of the popular press. The fate of the Donner Party gnawed at the gold prospectors who descended on the same part of California two years later.

More than a century and a half later, the Donner Party's various mountain hide outs - now a convenient pitstop off Highway 80 near Lake Tahoe - have become popular tourist destinations. An anthropologist, Terry Del Bene, even published Donner Party Cookbook a couple of years ago, laced with ghoulish humour.

And yet, according to forensic research unveiled this week, the Donner Party may not have been quite as voracious in its appetites as was previously believed. A group of anthropologists from the universities of Oregon and Montana spent three years examining remains at Alder Creek, one of the Donner Party's two encampments, and found no physical evidence of cannibalism whatsoever.

After conducting DNA analysis of some 16,000 bone fragments, the researchers found plentiful indications that the party had consumed its cattle, horses and at least one pet dog.No human remains, though, were apparent at Alder Creek, suggesting that, if the survivors did touch the flesh of their dead companions, they did so sparingly and - probably - with extreme reluctance. "Their aversion to cannibalism is apparent," said Montana anthropologist Kelly Dixon at a brief presentation in Sacramentothis week.

"It's possible no cannibalism took place at Alder Creek," said her colleague from Oregon, Julie Schablitsky, although she acknowledged that absence of proof did not mean the man-eating definitely did not took place.

Alder Creek was the smaller of the party's two camps. The other, on the shores of Lake Truckee, has already yielded definitive evidence of cannibalism, although historians have argued over its extent. But Alder Creek was also, in many ways, the more significant location because it was where the Donner family itself was holed up, and where the most lurid stories about cannibalism first originated.

The party certainly thought about consuming human flesh, starting in February 1847, about a month before the survivors were rescued. An entry from a pioneer's diary reads: "The Donn[er]s told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people four days ago, if they did not succeed in finding their cattle, then under 10 or 12 feet of snow."

With such talk in circulation, it is possible that the rescuers who came for the bodies after the spring thaw, might have jumped to conclusions, especially if the dead had been mutilated by wild animals.

"The Donner family ended up getting the stigma basically because of the name," Dr Schablitsky said. "But of all the people, they were probably the least deserving of it." The Donner Party was one of hundreds of wagon trails that headed west in the fulfilment of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny - the notion that the United States should have dominion of the north American continent from coast to coast. The group of 90 wagons, which started out in Missouri, was lured into a treacherous supposed short-cut and so failed to cross the Sierra Nevadas before the onset of winter.

Of the 91 members of the party, 44 died - almost all of starvation rather than cold. Theirs was not the only party lured by the temptation of cannibalism. The adventurer John C. Fremont saw his political career evaporate after he was suspected of eating human flesh in the San Juan mountains of Colorado in 1848.

A generation later, Alfred Packer was tried and imprisoned, also in Colorado, after he was suspected of killing his companions with the express purpose of eating them, although a forensic inquiry into his case has cast doubt on his guilt as a murderer as well as a man-eater.

The latest findings in the Sierra Nevadas have delighted the descendants of the Donner family, who have always maintained the good name of their ancestors had been wrongly besmirched.

"It's wonderful news," said Lochie Paige, whose great-grandmother, Elitha Donner, made it out of the Sierra alive. "My dad always said she had not been any part of cannibalism. Now we have the scientific proof."