An ill-fated 19th-century expedition that became trapped in the Canadian Arctic ended in a particularly gruesome type of cannibalism, new research suggests.
The gory end was faced by the British navy on the Franklin expedition, the doomed 1845 voyage to discover a sea route through the Canadian Arctic to the Orient.
Though scientists had long known that the shipmen likely resorted to cannibalism to survive, the new study reveals the true extremes the crew went to. Not only did the starving explorers cut flesh off the bones of their fallen comrades, they also cracked open the bones to suck out the marrow.
Still, the new finds leave one huge question unanswered: What caused the trip to go so horribly wrong in the first place? [In Photos: Arctic Shipwreck Solves 170-Year-Old Mystery]
On paper, the high-profile Arctic voyage looked like a plum gig. The famous Sir John Franklin, who had helmed two other Arctic explorations, led the team. The two ships, called the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, were sturdy and well provisioned, with between five and seven years of food stowed onboard. In addition, other Arctic expeditions had gone off without major problems.
"Being a polar explorer in the 19th century British Navy was a surprisingly safe occupation. You'd expect a 1 percent mortality rate," said study author Simon Mays, an archaeologist with Historic England, an organization of the British government that preserves historic buildings, monuments and sites.
The first year of the voyage, 1845, was a low ice year, and the 129-man expedition made it past Baffin Bay, near Greenland, and then threaded its way between islands in the Canadian Archipelago, looking for a Northwest Passage. Once the ocean froze, the ships were stuck for the winter, just off one of the islands, called King William Island. (The crew anticipated being frozen in for a few winters, which was why they had provisioned the ships so heavily, Mays said).
Unfortunately, the next few summers had heavy sea ice, so the ships remained stuck. The last communication from the British navy men was a terse note dated April 25, 1848, which revealed that 24 men had already died before they left the ships.
Bafflingly, the crew abandoned their food-laden ships and decided to trek 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to the nearest Hudson's Bay trading post, following the fish-rich Back River to safety.