Wednesday, April 21, 2010

So No Human Bones In Donner Hearth?

As a Bible scholar who seeks to better understand ancient texts through the disciplines of history and archaeology, I've been fascinated by a recent debate concerning the Donner Party.

Historians have little doubt that these people ate human flesh to survive the harsh winter of 1846-47. Survivors said they did, and historically speaking, it's well documented.

But enter the anthropologists... Gwen Robbins at Appalachian State University excavated one of the Donner Camps. In the hearth she found the bones of several animals but no human bones were discovered. Suddenly media outlets are running with the story that the Donner Party never ate people. I know pretty well how the media works, and how controversy and quotations out of context are common. But what troubles me here is that I fear the anthropologists might be overstepping their evidence, something I've often seen in the world of biblical studies.

The website from Robbins' university published this article. It falsely says the survivors "fiercely denied allegations of cannibalism." True, some did, but most admitted they ate people. The article states that the "legend of the Donner party was primarily created by print journalists... to sell more newspapers." Let me tell you, I have certainly heard a similar argument applied to biblical authors and biblical scholars. The article records that there are china shards in the hearth so they conclude these people attempted to maintain a "normal life" and their "refusal to accept the harsh reality of the moment." Interesting, but I'm reminded that Hannibal Lecter used fancy dishes. Anyway, I'll be anxious to read the full academic article in American Antiquity which comes out in July.

But for now my point is this: the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. The human bones, that survivors claimed they ate towards the end of their stay in the camp, would have been at the top of the hearth, making them less likely to be preserved for later excavation. The survivors talk about cooking the bones in very small pieces, so it's believable that they left no trace. So sorry media, but I think we're a long way away from separating the Donner Party from their alleged act of infamy. And in the end, as Indiana Jones tells us, archaeology is the search for fact, not truth, whatever the heck that means.


Kristin Johnson said...

Thank you, Michael, for being one of the few voices of sanity in this tempest in a teapot. Historians get it, archaeologists get it, but the media and the general public are, predictably, running amok.

Michael Homan said...

Kristin Johnson is an expert on the Donner-Reed Party. Check out her blog here:

Gwen Robbins said...

Thanks Michael and Kristin for attempting to set the record straight. The story was misconstrued as evidence that no one ate anyone and of course, that conclusion is beyond the bounds of the evidence. Way beyond. We did look for human remains in the assemblage but our major conclusion concerned the remains we did find and the diversity of taxa represented. Thanks for your work to insert some rational thought into the debate.

Best wishes,

Michael Homan said...

Thanks Gwen. I am very much looking forward to reading your forthcoming article and book. The deer bones were certainly unexpected with that much snow.

David said...

Well, all parties really much watch this clip, as a perfect coda to this media/Donner Party discussion.