Dig unearths artifacts that may resolve Donner Party questions

07/15/04

Researchers find hearth, artifacts and thousands of bone fragments

TRUCKEE, Calif.--A bonanza of artifacts that may prove to be from the Donner family's camp is on its way to the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene.

A team of archaeologists led by UO and University of Montana researchers hit pay dirt earlier this week at Alder Creek Camp in the Truckee Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest.

They uncovered a cooking hearth and bone fragments along with broken china, bits of jewelry, musket balls, fragments of a wagon and a chunk of a writing slate.

The discovery of the hearth provides what the UO's Julie Schablitsky says is the smoking gun needed to locate the camp and to settle whether starving members of the stranded group resorted to cannibalism to survive their desperate ordeal in the snowy Sierra Nevada during the winter of 1846-47.

"Here's where archaeology can come to the rescue and put contradictory statements and myths to rest," Schablitsky says. "If we are able to confirm that some of these bones are human, the debate over whether this is the Donner camp will be put to rest."

The team also hopes to establish what a starvation diet looks like. How were they processing what they did catch? Diaries don't say whether they were successful at hunting but Schablitsky says this new evidence indicates that they were.

And then there's the inevitable question about cannibalism.

For the answer, Guy Tasa, a human osteologist (bone specialist) at the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, will perform the initial cataloguing and analysis of the bone. DNA testing will certify whether any are human and possibly even link them with living descendants of the Donners. If the bones have "pot polish" on them, which occurs when bone are boiled in water, this will be a sign that cannibalism did take place.

"It's like finding a treasure on the order of Custer's battlefield," says Tasa, who has participated in both digs. "The Donner Party is this infamous thing. We're going to really be able to talk in depth about the entire four-month period out here. At the least we will be able show a sequence of events that ultimately may have led to cannibalism."

The age and types of artifacts have convinced team members that they likely have located the Donner's camp, and not a mining or logging camp.

"We've uncovered the kinds of things that confirm the presence of women and children," Schablitsky says. "George Donner's wife, Tamzene, was a teacher. Finding the pieces of a writing slate brings to my mind a vignette of her trying to normalize the situation by teaching her children arithmetic and spelling around the fire."

Workers combing the site also found a broken teacup with a hand-painted design on it that looks a lot like holly and ivy, a whetstone and shards of medicine bottles.

Schablitsky and co-primary investigator Kelly Dixon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Montana, brought a group of specialized researchers to this summer's dig, including Donner Party historian Kristin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif.; forensic anthropologist Shannon Novak, Idaho State University; and bioarchaeologist and cannibalism expert G. Richard Scott, University of Nevada, Reno.

The team members are planning a book about the science of the Donner Party, but for the next year or more, the focus will be on sorting through this new evidence. In addition, Schablitsky will begin teaching a new UO course this fall, historical archaeology.

Last summer, the Discovery Channel funded the team's excavation in the same area. Researchers unearthed burned bone, lamp glass, lead shot, bottle glass, ceramic dish fragments and a buckle. But a paper-thin layer of charcoal and a bone fragment with cut marks were not strong enough evidence to link the find directly to the Donners, so the team resolved to probe more deeply this year.

This summer's excavation was supported by grants from the Truckee Tahoe Community Foundation and the University of Montana's Office of Research. Additional support was provided by the U.S. Forest Service; Jones and Stokes, Inc.; Institute for Canine Forensics; Far Western Anthropological Research Group; Past Forward, Inc.; URS Consultants; Bureau of Land Management; and Summit Envirosolutions. Professional archaeologists from throughout the region volunteered their services to assist in the excavations.

Future work will include a spatial analysis to reconstruct the layout of the camp.

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