The January issue of Discover Magazine lists the top 100 science stories of 2003 (according to them, of course), and coming in at number 96 is the story of the Donner Party cannibalism site unearthed (scroll down the page for their summary).
In case you haven’t heard of the Donner Party, here’s a capsule review: in 1846 a group of pioneers on their way to California were trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by a blizzard. They had a limited food supply that ran out quickly, and survivors were forced to eat the bodies of the dead to survive. Gruesome stuff.
Anyway, Discover’s recap of the story—that archaeologists unearthed what they believe to be the Donner Party camp—spins it so that the Donner Party tragedy was a “legend has it” type of event—i.e., doubtful that it occurred. Say what?
This bothered me, so I went to the source: The book Weird History 101 (great book, I highly recommend it) contains several contemporary accounts of the Donner Party from the people who survived: Virginia Reed, daughter of one of the Party leaders; Lewis Keseberg, one of those forced to eat the dead to survive; and Edwin Bryant, not a member of the Party (I don’t think) but who visited the camp in the spring.
“Legend has it,” indeed. I can understand the importance of scientific investigations of an historic event, but playing off a well-documented incident as questionable as to whether it even occurred just seems awfully sloppy, and a bit irresponsible.