In the middle of the 19th century, human skeletons began appearing on ice in the Canadian Arctic.
The first were found in 1859 in a lifeboat — two long-dead men sitting on the shore of King William Island, waiting for a rescue that never came. Ten years later, another was found on a different part of the shore. In 1879, six more were found. The ghastly yield continued well into the 20th century — bones in 1932, in 1987, in 1992. None were buried. Some had been marked by rodent teeth. And some, it appeared, had been sawed.
These, researchers say, are the remains of a crew that vanished in one of the worst disasters in the history of arctic exploration: the Franklin expedition, which disappeared in 1846, claiming the lives of 129 men.
Now, the wreck of the HMS Erebus, one of the ships in the expedition, has been found in icy waters near King William Island after more than 150 years.
“It is in astonishing condition,” research team member John Geiger, president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, told the BBC. “We’re over the moon.”
Led by Sir John Franklin, the expedition set out from England to seek the elusive Northwest Passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic. The Erebus — which shares a name with a part of Hades in Greek mythology — and another unfortunately-named ship, the HMS Terror, made it to Baffin Bay near Greenland. In 1846, they got stranded in ice near King William Island, about 1,200 miles northwest of Toronto.
They stayed there for two years, dying slowly. In 1848, the crew, reduced from 129 to 105, deserted the ship, according to a note later found in a mound of stones. Franklin, the note said, was already dead.
Once off the ship, the men likely died faster. Inuit reports from the 19th century said the men “fell down and died as they walked along.” They may have succumbed to scurvy. They may have succumbed to lead poisoning inflicted by canned food.
Or there may have been a more meaty problem.
According to one 1869 account, “one man’s body when found by the Innuits [sic] flesh all on and not mutilated except the hands sawed off at the wrists — the rest a great many had their flesh cut off as if some one or other had cut it off to eat.”
This isn’t just Inuit legend reported secondhand when Ulysses S. Grant was president. In 1997, researchers evaluated cannibalism claims in “The Final Days of the Franklin Expedition: New Skeletal Evidence.”
“Evidence for decapitation is suggestive, but not conclusive,” the paper said. And: “The location of the cut marks is also consistent with defleshing.”
The conclusion: “The presence of cut marks on approximately one-quarter of the remains supports 19th-century Inuit accounts of cannibalism on the expedition.”
One unsolved mystery: Where’s Franklin?
“There are all kinds of suggestions that he may have been buried on shore, perhaps buried at sea, or perhaps he is still on the ship somewhere,” lead researcher Ryan Harris told CBC News. He was able to explore the crew’s eating area on the Erebus, but has not gone farther inside the ship yet. “Hopefully archaeological investigations will be able to identify the answer to that question in the years to come,” he said.
The Erebus research was funded by Parks Canada, a government agency likely motivated by more than a taste for solving seafaring mysteries or exposing Victorian-era cannibalism. The BBC pointed out Canada may wish to lay claim to the waters where the Erebus was found — waters the United States say are international. As the Arctic becomes more navigable because of climate change, more skeletons may emerge from the Arctic closet.
Harris didn’t seem to care about such geopolitical machinations.
“Without a doubt it is the most extraordinary shipwreck I’ve ever had the privilege of diving on,” he told CBC News.