During the excavation of the Donner Party’s campsite, 16,000 burned, fragmented bones were found. Many of the bones also had butchery and boiling marks. Robbins, an osteologist who specializes in bone biology and microstructure, examined the bones with three questions in mind: Are there any human bones in the hearth, which would provide material evidence for cannibalism? What kinds of other animals are present in the assemblage of bone fragments? and, What did the starvation diet look like?
The Donner Party has long been infamous for reportedly resorting to cannibalism after becoming trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California for months during the winter of 1846-1847. The party, originally 84 men, women and children, became stranded after a series of bad decisions and misfortunes caused numerous delays on their westward migration route and left them attempting to cross the mountains into California just as the first snows were falling in early October 1846.
In 2003, archaeologists Kelly Dixon (University of Montana) and Julie Schablitsky (then of the University of Oregon Museum) uncovered a hearth during the excavation of the Donner family’s campsite. Within the hearth, they found thousands of tiny burned fragments of bone, most measuring less than a quarter inch in diameter.
In 2004, Robbins, who was then a graduate student completing her PhD at the University of Oregon, was asked to determine whether the bones were human. A preliminary analysis of the bones was completed in 2006, after Robbins returned to the United States from dissertation research in India. This early analysis of 30 specimens indicated that there were no human bones from the hearth.
Upon joining the faculty at Appalachian, Robbins continued her research on the remains. With a team of undergraduate students, she pored through the tiny fragments looking for remains that could withstand further testing. The majority of bone fragments were so small and so delicate that they would crumble if subjected to thin sectioning, but there were about 250 larger, sturdier pieces of bone that showed evidence of cutting, chopping and boiling. Of these, 55 additional fragments were studied.