Archaeologists Seeking to Unearth Truth About Donner Party

Mealtimes with the famous Donner Party may have been a highly civilized affair, with members dining on painted dinner plates and drinking from delicate teacups before the party was forced to resort to cannibalism to survive the harsh winter in the Sierra Nevada.

A cooking hearth and bones unearthed by archaeologists at a site in the Tahoe National Forest, about 35 miles southwest of Reno, Nev., could provide valuable clues into what really happened during the four months the party was snowbound in the winter of 1846-47.

In addition to shards of dinnerware, medicine bottles, musket balls, wagon parts and jewelry beads were found at the hearth.

Newspaper accounts sensationalized the claims of cannibalism told by camp survivors, but there has been no physical evidence discovered to support the tales.

"Despite their desperate situation, they were trying to act like real humans, eating off of plates and drinking out of teacups," said Kelly Dixon, an archaeologist from the University of Montana and co-leader of the dig. "If we could identify the bones as human and could locate cut marks, we would have the grounds to settle this controversy once and for all."

The bone fragments will be tested to determine whether they are human and whether there is evidence of cannibalism.

-- Kimberly Edds

Researchers say bone fragments appear to be large enough for DNA testing.Shannon Novak works at the site where a cooking hearth and bones were found.