Stranded Explorers Became More Than Cannibals

Scientists finally learn the lengths British shipmen went to survive
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 22, 2015 9:02 AM CDT
Stranded Explorers Became More Than Cannibals
In this July 10, 2008 photo, ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the arctic circle seen from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent. Climate change will be costing Canada and its people about $5 billion a year by 2020, a groundbreaking analysis for the federal government warns.   (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

Call it cannibalism-plus. Scientists have learned that a group of British Navy shipmen stranded in the Canadian Arctic in the mid-1840s didn't just cut the flesh off their fellow crewmen's bones to survive, they also cracked those bones to suck out the marrow. Reporting in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, anthropologists at the University of Alberta examined more than 35 bones from the ill-fated expedition, which left no survivors, and found marks consistent with "end-stage" cannibalism, whereby people break and boil bones for marrow fat. As the researchers explain, "Survival cannibalism generally follows a sequence in which meat is initially cut from an intact corpse, but if further calories are required successively greater effort is put into corpse processing."

Led by the famous Sir John Franklin, with two Arctic expeditions already under his belt, the two ships—aptly named the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror—carried upward of seven years of food with the expectation of being stranded for some time. When the 129 men passed Baffin Bay near Greenland in search of a Northwest Passage to the Orient, they became stuck just off King William Island for the winter. But the next few summers brought heavy sea ice, and a note written April 25, 1848, suggests 24 men had died. (Vitamin C deficiency is a possible culprit.) The remaining men "bafflingly" abandoned ship, per LiveScience, and died at various points along the 1,000-mile trek to the nearest trading post. A few years later a Canadian mapmaker heard Inuit reports of cannibalism, and analysis of remains gathered from expedition sites on King William Island confirm just how dire the situation became. (Just one of the two ships have been found.)

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