New Study Gives Clues About What Happened To Mysterious Cannibal Shipwreck

Lead poisoning was not a major factor in the demise of the Franklin Expedition.

franklin expedition
The end of the Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage. Engraving from a painting by W. Thomas Smith.
Bettmann Archive

For years, the cause of death for all 128 crew members on the Franklin Expedition has evaded archaeologists, though there were clues that the men probably turned to cannibalism in their final days, according to Smithsonian Magazine. But a new study has shed light on the mysterious 19th-century shipwreck, and has disproven the popular idea that the prevailing suspect behind the sailors’ deaths was lead poisoning.

The study, published in Plos One, focused on three hypotheses. If elevated lead exposure killed the crew, bones of those who survived longer than the others should exhibit a more extensive distribution of lead. Plus, microstructural bone features formed around the time of death should show elevated lead levels. And the sailors’ bones should exhibit higher or more sustained levels of lead than those of a British naval population around the same time period.

Researchers used high-tech X-ray image scans of the bones. They found that the levels of lead in them did not support the first and third hypotheses, and only partially supported the third. This led them to conclude that lead poisoning cannot be the main cause of death in the Franklin Expedition sailors. But despite this new study, that main cause is still a mystery.

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