A study conducted by Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., unearthed 85 pieces of bones buried beneath the Donner Party's Alder Creek campsite in California and found no evidence that any of them were human. Instead, according to professor and study leader Gwen Robbins, the bones were those of cattle, deer, horses and at least one family dog eaten out of desperation.
"They were boiling hides, chewing on leather and trying desperately to survive," Robbins told Discovery News. "We can see that the bones were processed so heavily -- boiled and crushed down in order to extract any kind of nutrients from them."
Popular accounts of the pioneers' fate hold that only by resorting to cannibalism did 47 of the party's original 84 members manage to survive. But Robbins said that if the Donner Party had been consuming human flesh, they did not leave the bones at the campsite where they were trapped.
"What we have demonstrated is that there is no evidence for cannibalism," Robbins said. "If the Donner Party did resort to cannibalism, the bones were treated in a different way (such as buried), or they were placed on the hearth last and could have since eroded."
The new findings aren't going down well with some Donner Party historians.
"There's a saying, 'Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,'" Kristin Johnson, the historian for the Donner Party Archaeology Project, told the Sierra Sun. "The fact that no evidence was found at Alder Creek doesn't have any reflection on what happened in the entire Donner Party."
She said the human bones that would bear the marks of cannibalism likely decomposed long ago. Johnson also points to rescuers' reports that the Donner Party resorted to eating one another.
According to Discovery News, the Donner Party members who survived the winter of 1846-47, 11 men and 36 women and children, "fiercely denied the allegations" of cannibalism; one man, Lewis Keseberg, won a defamation suit after he was branded "Keseberg the Cannibal."