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Franklin’s Doomed Arctic Expedition Ended in Gruesome Cannibalism

New bone analysis suggests crew resorted to eating flesh, then marrow

A stone etching on the grave of crewmember Lt. John Irving depicts the dire conditions that the Franklin expedition faced when they reached the Canadian Arctic. (Kim Traynor/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
smithsonian.com

In 1845, an expedition of 129 men led by explorer Sir John Franklin left Great Britain for the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. Their ships the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror never returned to British shores.

Rumors that the crew resorted to cannibalism have swirled around the doomed expedition since the 19th century. A note left in a canister on King William Island in the central Canadian Arctic indicates that their ships got stranded in ice. Now, new evidence suggests that Franklin’s crew not only consumed the flesh of deceased compatriots, they also cracked bones to eat the marrow inside, Tia Ghose reports for Live Science

When it happens out of necessity, cannibalism occurs in phases. First, people cut flesh from bones, focusing on big muscle groups. When things get even direr, they start to break the bones apart to get at the fat-rich marrow inside. This is called end-stage cannibalism, and it’s usually part of a last ditch effort to survive. Is that what happened to the doomed Franklin expedition? 

Though the expedition had plenty of food aboard, the men mysteriously abandoned those provisions to hike inland along the Back River in search of a Hudson Bay Company trading post, writes Ghose. None of them made it. Most probably died of starvation, and in 1854, rumors of cannibalism arose from interviews with local Inuits who told tales of piles of human bones, cracked in half, writes Ghose. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers recovered remains of the crew on King William Island. Knife marks adorned the bones, backing up those early accounts. 

And now, a new analysis of 35 bones by anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie suggests that the men did indeed eat one another. The bones they analyzed showed signs of breakage and heating—thus, the crewmembers likely cooked them to extract the marrow. Mays and Beattie published their results June 18 in the International Journal of Osteology.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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