Reno, Nev. There's no physical evidence that the family who gave the Donner Party its name had anything to do with the cannibalism the ill-fated pioneers have been associated with for a century and a half, two scientists said Thursday.
Cannibalism has been documented at the Sierra Nevada site where most of the Donner Party's 81 members were trapped during the brutal winter of 1846-47, but 21 people, including all the members of the George and Jacob Donner families, were stuck six miles away because a broken axle had delayed them.
No cooked human bones were found among the thousands of fragments of animal bones at that Alder Creek site, suggesting Donner family members did not resort to cannibalism, the archaeologists said at a conference of the Society for Historical Archaeology in Sacramento, Calif.
"The Donner Party's experience was bad, but it wasn't as bad as everybody's been told," said Julie Schablitsky, one of the lead authors and a historical archaeologist at the University of Oregon's Museum of Natural and Cultural History.
The findings by Schablitsky and Kelly Dixon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Montana, don't necessarily disprove the accounts of cannibalism told by rescuers and survivors stranded in a fierce winter storm.
If cannibalism did occur at the Alder Creek site, bones were not burned or boiled along with the flesh, the authors said.