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The cannibals of the Franklin expedition?

The cannibals of the Franklin expedition?

They left the mouth of the Thames (England), in the summer of 1845. A total of 128 people, including officers and crew, divided into two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror . Its destination was North America and, more specifically, the Northwest Pass the sea route that traverses the ocean Arctic and connects the Strait of Davis and the Strait of Bering .

They were directed by Sir John Franklin Rear Admiral of the British Navy, 59 years old, besides experienced scout, who had already participated in up to three arctic expeditions. The boats spent the first winter in the small Beechey Island located in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, very close to the west coast of Devon Island. Three of the crew died and were buried there.

The Erebus and the Terror were found under the sea in 2014 and 2016, respectively

A year later, the situation was much worse. The Erebus and the Terror – found under the sea in 2014 and 2016, respectively – were stranded on the ice off King William Island, north of the Adelaide Peninsula and west of the Boothia Peninsula. They remained there until April 1848, when the men who were still alive (a little over 100) made a desperate attempt to reach the mainland.

They went south along the western and southern coasts of the island. His goal was to reach the mainland and, through the Back River, get help at a post from the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which had a monopoly of trade over the region bathed by the rivers and streams that flow into the bay of Hudson. Nobody survived.

The route of the Franklin expedition

Years later, in 1854, the scientific expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Rae met with Inuits who still kept personal belongings of the crew. They also explained that they had found lots of human remains in the same area, which gave rise to the hypothesis that the sailors had opted for cannibalism to survive as long as possible.

Precisely this is the detail that highlights the series The Terror recently premiered by AMC and produced by Ridley Scott. But it is not the only theory that was used for years to explain how all men perished, one by one. The most accepted hypothesis proposed that they died of poisoning with lead.

 Some of the objects recovered from the Franklin expedition
Some of the objects recovered from the Franklin expedition

In 1984, the mummified body of John Torrington, one of the crew of the expedition, was found. After analyzing the bone, hair and soft tissue samples from the remains, it was found that there were elevated levels of lead. It was also believed that it was the fault of the canned foods, which had been badly canned.

At least until a group of researchers from the MacEwan, Lakehead, Trent, Waterloo and Saskatchewan Universities just demonstrated that the sailors " they were not exposed to a higher level of lead than any other sailor of that time, "explains Professor David Cooper, one of the authors of the study.

 Rear Admiral John Franklin
Rear Admiral John Franklin

The analysis published in the journal PLoS ONE
the experts found that the distribution of lead in the samples from two different sites in which remains of the Franklin expedition were found were similar. They compared tissues from people who survived the longest with those of the crew members who perished on Beechey Island.

Their goal was to rule out three possibilities. First, if the crew experienced high exposure to lead during the expedition, the team assumed that the longest-surviving sailors (King William Island versus Beechey Island) would exhibit more of that metal residue distributed in their bones.

 relics of Franklin's expedition, published in the 'Illustrated London News' in 1854
The relics of Franklin's expedition, published in the 'Illustrated London News' in 1854
(Wikipedia / AMC)

Second, it was suggested that lead levels would be elevated in the bones that form during or near the time of death, compared to the older tissues of the body. Finally, if exposure to lead metal played a key role in the failure of the mission, the samples would show a more extensive absorption than the British sailors of the same period buried in the Royal Navy cemetery in Antigua (Antilles).

"Taken together, skeletal microstructural findings do not support the conclusion that lead played a critical role in the death of Franklin and his crew," the researchers write.

The deaths of Beechey – who probably died at home from pneumonia and tuberculosis – and King William contained similar lead distributions, implying exposure well before the expedition. And the comparative analysis with the samples from Antigua "did not support the hypothesis that the distribution of lead among Franklin's sailors was unusual for that time."

The distribution of lead among the Franklin sailors was not unusual for the time