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Cannibalism, Then & NOW

A couple of years ago, we reported on the bizarre story of a German cannibal who ate a willing victim he met on the internet, in a bizarre sadomasochistic act. Cannibalism is actually not as uncommon as you might think, even among humans. In the past, it was sometimes done in an attempt to gain the strength and courage of the person being eaten, but in modern times, desperately hungry people resort to it surprisingly often.

The German cannibal Armin Meiwes explained his action to a judge by saying, "I wanted to eat him, but I didn't want tokill him." He was sentenced last January 2to 8 ? years for manslaughter, but he will be retried and may get a tougher sentence this time. He admitted killing Bernd-Juergen Brandes, but was not given a life sentence because the victim had said he wanted to be eaten.

Archeologists excavating the site where the Donner party was lost in California's Tahoe National Forest have found no obvious signs of cannibalism. It has long been assumed that the survivors ate the dead in order to stay alive, after being caught in a blizzard. They did find used tea cups and other tableware that were used to eat domestic and wild animals while stranded in the Sierra Nevadas during 1846-47, but results of analyses of bone fragments found at the campsite in do not show any evidence of cannibalism.

In 2003 and 2004, archeologist Julie Schablitsky and her team found a cooking hearth and an associated shelter at the site, along with thousands of pieces of burned bone. They also found wagon parts, writing slate, musket balls, pieces of tea cups and plates, bottle shards, and lost jewelry.

Mitochondrial DNA testing was done on the bone fragments to determine if they were human. However, the genetic material was too degraded and no DNA could be lifted from the bones.

In the course of testing, Guy Tasa and Gwen Robbins examined the bone fragments to determine if they belonged to any animal species. They found the Donners lived off of their livestock and wild game. No human bones were in the collection they tested.

Shannon Novak looked for trauma and "pot polish" on the bone fragments. The presence of pot polish indicates that bones have been boiled in water and is an indicator of cannibalism. Novak discovered that many bone fragments were sawed, chopped and cut as well as polished, suggesting extreme desperation and starvation among the group, but none of the bones appeared to be human. It?s now thought that residents of the camp consumed domestic and wild animals, including the family dog.

Over the last several months, the History Channel and the New Yorker have followed the team?s work. The History Channel will air a 30-minute segment on the Donner Party in their new cannibalism documentary scheduled for this spring. The New Yorker will publish a comprehensive story later this month.

This week on Dreamland, William Henry interviews Philip Coppens about The Canopus Revelation: The Stargate of the Gods and the Ark of Osiris. William knows something about stargates himself, so this should be an interesting show!

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