Tahoe Nugget #37:
Donner Party Bone Analysis
During last week's Society of Historical Archeology conference in Sacramento, about a dozen Donner Party "experts" presented their latest research regarding this 1846-47 event where 81 pioneers
heading to California became trapped east of Donner Pass by deep snow. As a member of this group, I gave a presentation that chronicled storm activity and snowfall estimates during that winter. In general, much of
the information presented at the conference was focused on cannibalism and based on recent archeology and bone fragments from one of the two encampments where the emigrants holed up. Most people have heard of Donner
Lake, the principle encampment, but the two Donner families and their hired teamsters were isolated at the Alder Creek meadows about six miles north of the lake.
During the last three years of digging at the
Alder Creek location, nearly 16,000 bone fragments were discovered, although virtually all of them are smaller than a fingernail in size. Thirty of the 16,000 bone pieces were tested by forensic scientists who were
looking for human bones that were boiled, indicative of cannibalism. DNA analysis is unavailable due to the breakdown of this material due to temperature extremes, soil acidity, and the pattern of very wet and very
dry (winter vs. summer) conditions at the site. Scientists used scanning electron microscopes to study the bone structure at the cellular level and were able to identify bones from horses, cows, deer and dog. No
human bones were identified which the media decided meant that no cannibalism occurred at the Alder Creek site, a conclusion I find premature. I will be publishing a more detailed analysis of this research in the
near future and it will be posted on my website. Stay tuned.