The case of cannibalism, or: how to survive the Donner party


You’ll be finishing the last of your grocery stores in a matter of days. Then you will eat your oxen. Then, just six weeks after you squat by the lake, you try to eat the leather: you boil it for hours until it turns to pulp, let it cool and try to eat the substance. sticky result. You are starving now.

Soon you will start to feel small visible signs of physical and cognitive decline. Your brain will shift its energy source from glucose to fat, and you will feel more irritable, low on energy, and cold as you lose the ability to effectively contract your blood vessels. Without food, your body will consume itself for the energy it needs. It will start with protein and fat, but since you have already lost a lot of weight, it will soon be gaining muscle, including your heart. Once you’ve lost 35% of your body weight from your already lean baseline, you may experience seizures and hallucinations. Your weakened heart will then develop an arrhythmia and eventually fail.

But exactly how long it takes for your body to reach those dark milestones depends on a few important factors: how much you move, how much you eat, your age, the state of your relationship, and most importantly, your gender.

If you are a single man in your twenties in great physical shape, you are in extreme danger. You have the lowest fat stores, the highest metabolism, and no one to help you: Healthy young men without families die first in starvation situations. If this describes you and you don’t follow the steps below, you will be dead by Christmas.

In the last 10 days of December, after eight weeks trapped by the lake, Bayless Williams, Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Joseph Reinhardt, James Smith and Charles Burger all die. All are men, and all except Donner, who is 56, are between 24 and 36 years old. You’ll bury them in shallow, icy graves just outside the cabins.

When I asked Donald Grayson, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and author of Sex & Death on the Western Emigrant Trail, why young men starve the fastest and how you can survive if you are unlucky enough to be one, he said, young men are in danger for several reasons. The first is cultural.

The gender roles of the pioneers of the 1800s were clear: “Back then, men expected them to do heavy work, and that’s exactly what happened,” Grayson says. Hard work increases your metabolism, so in a cruel twist, the more you helped trace the trail above Wasatch, the faster you will die.

If you are a woman, you are in less immediate danger than a man, not only because of cultural advantages, but also a few natural advantages. Women on average have less lean mass than men and more subcutaneous fat, which means their bodies have more stored calories and a lower natural metabolism. In other words, if you are a woman, you have both more fuel and better mileage than a man. And you are far from a gas station.

This perk will not only prolong your survival at camp, but also give you an escape opportunity that a man would be ill advised to pursue: On December 16, 10 men and five women make snowshoes and desperately rush to the pass. .

The journey is hellish. You will lose your way. You will spend a week trapped by a blizzard. You will walk another five freezing weeks without eating almost anything. But if eight of the ten men who left die, the five women survive. So if you’re a female, you may want to consider escaping with the December 16 party – although the trip is so horrible it’s hard to recommend. If you are a man: difficult pass.

Instead, not only do you have to skip the arduous hike, you shouldn’t be doing anything. at all. You need to stabilize your metabolism. If you reduce your movements, you can reduce your calorie needs by about 50 to 80 percent. Rather than working to survive, you want to be in the worst shape of your life. “On the Donner Party, you absolutely want to be a couch potato, not a marathon runner,” Grayson says. As proof, he cites the example of George Donner, who had an infection in his hand which prevented him from staying in bed throughout the winter. He survived until March, long after most men his age had already starved to death.

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