Dr. G. Richard Scott teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he specializes in physical and dental anthropology and skeletal biology. He’ll give a free lecture on the Donner Party at the Donner Memorial State Park Visitor Center, 12593 Donner Pass Road, Truckee, California, Nov. 18 at 5:30 p.m. Doors open at 5. Visit sierrastateparks.org/events.
The talk is related to the book An Archaeology of Desperation, right? What else can you tell me?
Well, I was visiting the museum this summer with some friends. Anyone who comes to Reno, I always take to the Alder Creek site and the Donner Museum. And I just mentioned to someone behind the desk that I was involved in the 2004 excavation and if they ever wanted me to give a talk about that, I would be glad to do it. … I will put Donner Party cannibalism into a larger world context as well.
I don’t immediately think of the Donner Party when I think cannibalism. I jump to, like, shipwrecks.
There are all kinds of circumstances where you find cannibalism. In some cultures, it’s institutionalized and perfectly acceptable behavior. Of course, in Europe it wasn’t so much. There was a little bit of kind of symbolic cannibalism, where they might eat just a little bit of a deceased relative—but nothing like we see in Mesoamerica or the South Pacific, where the consumption of human flesh was done on a rather significant scale.
With the Donner Party, I guess they call it survival cannibalism, but I have my reservations considering they killed two Native Americans. But they also ate, like, their boots and stuff, right?
They ate everything. They had bison hides that they used on the lean-tos. And they boiled those hides and basically got some kind of pasty mass that they would consume. … A lot of the authors … have said it was really more for filling their gut than for nutrition. Insofar as the two Native Americans are concerned, Jeri, you’re absolutely right. It was survival cannibalism—except for that instance. You know what? That was like a mid-19th century view of the world, which was very Eurocentric. And people who were not Europeans were viewed as expendable.
When people fail to acknowledge that, it shocks me.
No kidding, especially since the Natives were trying to help them. That’s so disgusting. They were trying to help them. And that was their pay in return.
In 2004, the news was the dig at Alder Creek didn’t turn up signs of cannibalism. Was that wrong?
OK. Now, this is the thing about the cannibalism of the Donner Party. We were definitely looking for direct evidence. And we did not find the smoking gun. What we found were thousands of bone fragments. … Basically, they’re breaking bone up—they’re boiling it so long that it would break up into small fragments. And the reason they were boiling it is that bone is one-third collagen, which is a consumable protein. Of course, the marrow would go fairly quickly. [Researcher] Gwen Robbins … was able to identify horse, bear, oxen and, really sadly, dog. There was a dog, and apparently the dog was one of the last things to go. They probably killed the dog. This is my theory as to why we didn’t find any bones of humans. … When we were doing the excavation, Lochie Donner [Paige] came by and was elated, “You found no evidence for cannibalism.” In a literal sense, that’s true. We didn’t find any bone that was human. From the historical narratives, there’s hardly any question that cannibalism took place.