Inuit have long shared tales of cannibalism on Sir John Franklin's last expedition to the Arctic, and now researchers say they have found evidence to back up those stories.

Researchers from the University of Alberta and  the U.K. public body Historic England looked at the remains from 36 cracked bones found on King William Island, in what is now Nunavut. The bones show signs of breakage and polishing consistent with heating in water to facilitate marrow extraction, as well as evidence of having been cut into with a sharp object.

"With the cut marks we've shown that the cannibalism took place," says Simon Mays, a member of the excavation and analysis team at Historic England.

In 1845, Franklin commanded a British naval expedition that included two ships and 128 men to map the Northwest Passage. By fall 1846, the ice had trapped the ships near King William Island in Nunavut. A note from the crew dated April 25, 1848, said that Franklin had died on June 11, 1847.

The crew was reportedly set to walk toward the Back River, but none of them survived the trek.   

Late-stage cannibalism

Mays says cannibalism tends to occur in stages, with people first feeding on the biggest cuts of meat for calories.

"As time goes on, they progress and invest more and more effort trying to get nutrients out of the bone. And the final stage is to break up the bones and marrow which is what we're seeing here."

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin led an ultimately doomed expedition in the mid-1840s to find the Northwest Passage. Researchers say the men on Franklin's expedition practised cannibalism during the fated voyage, something local historians have suspected for years. (Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

Mays says the evidence confirms that Franklin's men were practising cannibalism over time, as the bone remains were located in multiple sites. The new research also proves that in the final throes of the expedition the men not only ate human flesh to survive, but even resorted to boiling human bones, he says.

"They say they saw bones in kettles with heating vessels. So this is really confirming 19th-century Inuit accounts of cannibalism on the voyage," says Mays.

Louie Kamookak is a community historian from the hamlet of Gjoa Haven who has been collecting accounts about the Franklin expedition for years. He says he's not surprised that it's taken evidence from researchers and scientists to finally accept what local oral historians have recounted for years.

"They're finally starting to realize that oral history among the people are strong, and a lot of it is truth," says Kamookak.

'Bad spirits'

Over the years, Kamookak has collected many stories about the expedition, including one that he first heard from an elder in the community in the early 1980s.

"There's a lot of stories — oral history — that was kind of gruesome," says Kamookak, recounting a story of a tent found near a lifeboat in the 19th century.

"When they lift up the tent that was down," he says, "there was a dead white man there, and also, there was a pot in there with human remains."  

For years, according to Kamookak, people in the area were told to stay away from these spots to avoid "bad spirits.

"Bad spirits refer to what they were seeing. These white men eating each other," he says.