Friday, September 13, 2013

Into The Wild: How Christopher McCandles Died


[Note: There has been more discussion about whether or not the movie -- Into the  Wild -- accurately depicted how the main character died.  Wild food expert Sam Thayer has gone into this in great detail, and he covers it in his excellent "Foragers Harvest" book.  Here is what Thayer had to say about this case in an article that he wrote for Wilderness Way when I was the editor -- the article was never published because the magazine folded.  See what you think.  Christopher Nyerges]

Into the Wild—What Really Killed Chris McCandless?
by Samuel Thayer

Both the book and the movie Into The Wild portray Chris McCandless—the hapless “survivalist” who was found dead in a bus in the Alaska bush in Sept. of 1992—as having died from eating a wild plant. Millions have seen the movie, and it has left a strong impression on an entire generation of idealistic young wilderness lovers. The message many take from the movie is: “the city is evil, wilderness is beautiful and good, but it will kill you. So stay home.” For other people who already questioned the value of wilderness experiences, the book and movie only solidified the fears and ignorance that had already kept them indoors.
     But perhaps a better question than, “What is the story’s message,” is simply, “Is the story true?” This inquiry has been all but ignored by the media—despite the overwhelming evidence that the causes of death presented in the movie and book are completely bogus. This is all the more strange when we consider that, in originally arguing that Chris was killed by eating a wild plant, Jon Krakauer—a person with absolutely no credentials in this field—was contradicting the medical authorities who had examined Chris’s remains. There is, in fact no evidence that eating a wild plant contributed in any way to Chris McCandless’s death.

Jon Krakauer’s Three Stories, and Why They’re All Wrong

     Arguing against Krakauer here is a bit confusing because he has told three completely separate versions of how Chris died. (This alone is highly suspicious.) First, in an article in Outside Magazine, he conjectured that Chris had died by poisoning when he mistook the wild sweet pea Hedysarum mackenziei for the “wild potato” Hedysarum alpinum. But since the medical examination showed that Chris had clearly starved to death, Krakauer posited that McCandless was “laid low” by the poisoning, and thus unable to feed himself. 
     But there is no evidence that Chris McCandless ever ate even a single seed of H. mackenziei. Despite Krakauer’s misinformed insistence that the veins on the underside of the leaflets are the only reliable characteristic distinguishing them, there are actually numerous features of the two plants that are notably different. In fact, experienced foragers can readily distinguish these plants by their roots alone (Schofield, 1989). Krakauer’s hypothesis requires that, after more than a month of collecting H. alpinum safely, McCandless suddenly couldn’t recognize the plant and accidentally ate a significant volume of H. mackenziei seeds. Exceedingly unlikely.
The second fatal flaw in this poisoning hypothesis is the fact that H. mackenziei, the plant that supposedly poisoned Chris McCandless, is not poisonous. Krakauer calls H. mackenziei “poisonous” but admits that “accounts of individuals being poisoned from eating H. mackenziei are nonexistent in modern medical literature” (p.191). He goes on to counter that, “the aboriginal inhabitants of the North have apparently known for millennia that the wild sweet pea is toxic,” but he does not tell us what makes this assumption “apparent.” Krakauer only finds one highly questionable account of a poisoning “attributable” to wild sweet pea from 1848. In the wake of the Chris McCandless case, extensive laboratory analyses have been conducted, attempting to verify the toxicity of H. mackenziei. Roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, and stems were all analyzed. These tests have turned up no alkaloids or toxins of any kind (Treadwell and Clausen, 2008). The authors of this study also state that there is no credible chemical, historical, or ethnobotanical basis for the anecdotal belief that H. mackenziei is toxic.
The hypothesis that Chris McCandless died from eating H. mackenziei seeds is totally unsupported, has no factual basis, and should be discarded. So when he wrote Into The Wild, Krakauer had to come up with a second story: that Chris was poisoned by the seeds of H. alpinum—the plant that he thought he was eating. Now, the story went, Chris hadn’t eaten the wrong plant, he had eaten the wrong part of the right plant, and this caused him to starve to death. At face value, this is a very odd proposition. Last time I checked, starvation was caused by not eating things. The only way that Krakauer could make this precarious case was to argue that a chemical called swainsonine was present. Although swainsonine poisoning is unknown in humans, it does (like many chronic illnesses) cause starvation in livestock in the later stages.
 Unfortunately for our would-be detective, this hypothesis has two flaws that are almost unbelievably obvious. First, evidence for toxicity of these seeds is entirely nonexistent. Krakauer himself points out that “the seeds of H. alpinum have never been described as toxic in any published text: an extensive search of the medical and botanical literature yielded not a single indication that any part of H. alpinum is poisonous” (p. 191). Then he assumes they contain swainsonine anyways. Dr. Thomas Clausen, a biochemist at the University of Alaska, tested these seeds for toxins such as swainsonine and found no traces. And this plant is considered good livestock forage, which would not be the case if it contained a toxin that would kill sheep and cattle. 
The second problem with Krakauer’s hypothesis of swainsonine poisoning is the fact that Chris was clearly not exhibiting the signs of it. Swainsonine poisoning causes uncoordination, hypersensitivity, depression, blank-staring eyes, loss of awareness, and similar neurological symptoms long before it causes weight loss and starvation. Yet Krakauer somehow ignores the fact that Chris was not exhibiting these widely known classic symptoms. His only swainsonine symptom, emaciation, was observed well before the alleged poisoning by H. alpinum seeds, and can clearly be attributed to the caloric deprivation that he was suffering.
When a Matthew Power article in Men’s Journal exposed the fact that biochemists have found H. alpinum seeds nontoxic, Krakauer quickly composed yet a third story to explain McCandless’s death, and a new edition of the book came out bearing the revised tale. This third, the “moldy seed” hypothesis, is the most fanciful, forced, and inane of all. It states that, although the seeds of H. alpinum are not poisonous and do not contain swainsonine, they must have become infected with a certain mold, Rhizoctonia leguminicola, which could produce swainsonine. If you ignore the fact that Rhizoctonia leguminicola is not known to infect H. alpinum, and the fact that Chris’ symptoms appear incompatible with Rhizoctonia poisoning (a hyper-salivating condition known as “slobbers”), you are still left with the problem that there is no evidence that Chris actually ate any moldy seeds—much less the “enormous quantities” that Krakauer proposes (and which would be required to cause poisoning). The only evidence that Krakauer gives to support this idea is that McCandless collected some seeds during a rainy period and put some of them in a Ziploc bag. That’s it.
Are you convinced?
The moldy seed explanation is patently ridiculous. By this time, one begins to wonder if Krakauer will just continue to change his hypotheses ad infinitum as each one is logically and scientifically refuted. This capriciousness is the hallmark of “science” with a predetermined conclusion. Clearly, Krakauer’s predetermined conclusion is that Chris McCandless died from a wild plant that he ate, and it appears that he will twist the facts in any illogical way necessary to support this conclusion. Even if that means contradicting the scientific and medical establishments in order to create a better story.

The Movie’s Deliberate Deception About McCandless’s Death

In the movie version of Into The Wild, Sean Penn chose to portray McCandless poisoning himself according to Krakauer’s first unsupported hypothesis—mistaking wild sweet pea for wild potato. When Chris is starving and trapped by the high waters of the Teklanika River, the film shows him having an epiphany after reading the words “to call each thing by its right name” in Doctor Zhivago. After this, he takes the field guide Tanaina Plantlore and goes on a plant identification spree. Among the plants he identifies is Hedysarum alpinum. (In reality, Chris had already been collecting and eating this plant for several weeks by this time.) After eating this plant’s seeds, McCandless becomes very ill. Upon a second look at his book he realizes that he has mistakenly eaten H. mackenziei, the wild sweet pea. Further reading reveals that he is bound to die a slow, agonizing death. He throws the book in rage, knowing that he has been murdered for an innocent mistake by the treachery of a poisonous plant. Just before Chris expires, so that nobody forgets how he perished, the movie hauntingly repeats the words, “To call each thing by its right name. By its right name.”
The message is clear: Eating wild plants will kill you.
But it’s a lie.
When Chris opens up Tanaina Plantlore (Kari, 1987), the book’s actual cover is shown. But when Chris flips to page 128 to read about H. mackenziei, the movie shows a counterfeit page that the producers have forged and inserted. The excerpt from the book that McCandless reads in the film goes like this (Yes, it really does go like this; the apparent errors and omissions are original.):

The lateral veins, nearly invisible on leaflets of wild sweet pea the plants poisonous seedlings. If ingested symptoms include partial motor paralysis, inhibition of digestion, and nausea. If untreated leads to starvation and death. Another way to distinguish is that the stem of the wild sweet pea is mostly unbranched.

That’s strange, because when I open to page 128 in my copy, it only says this in the same place:

The lateral veins of the leaflets of wild sweet pea are hidden, while those of the wild potato are conspicuous. Another way to distinguish between the two plants is that the stem of the wild sweet pea is mostly unbranched, while that of the wild potato is definitely branched.

In real life, the book has no mention whatsoever of “partial motor paralysis, inhibition of digestion, and nausea,” nor of “starvation and death.” That was all just fabricated so that Chris’s life story could be twisted into a fable for the purpose of casting fear and doubt into those who would seek what he sought. The greatest lessons that could be learned from his death are now buried under this myth.

So how did Chris McCandless die?

There has never been debate about this: Chris starved to death. His autopsy, performed by the crime lab in Anchorage, confirmed this. When Chris’s body was found, it weighed 67 pounds; it was estimated that his weight at death was 83 pounds, with a body mass index of 13.3 (Lamothe, 2007). Death from starvation usually occurs when body mass index falls to about 13 (Shils et al., 1994; Henry, 1990). The proportion of weight that Chris lost was comparable to that normally associated with victims of concentration camps, severe famine, anorexia nervosa, and death by starvation (Keys et al., 1950). Even Chris’ own journal, nineteen days before his death, says, “Starving. Great Jeopardy.”
Keys et al. (1950), in their famous and fascinating study of human starvation, point out that starving people become exceedingly preoccupied with food, writing and talking of little else. Krakauer and others were struck by this very feature of Chris’s journal: Andrew Liske, who accompanied Krakauer to the bus after Chris’s death, noted after reading the journal, “He wrote about hardly anything except food” (p. 183). Chris displayed this obsession for the entire stay, because he was starving through all of it. The journal entries clearly show that he was not getting nearly enough calories. He took pictures of himself that document his steadily decreasing body mass throughout his stay in Alaska. He appears dangerously malnourished weeks before ingesting the seeds that Krakauer claims killed him. The medical examiners who performed Chris’ autopsy noted telltale signs of starvation: severe deterioration of his muscles and a lack of subcutaneous fat. No other individual who has seriously investigated the matter finds Krakauer’s explanations necessary or even credible.
The only reasonable conclusion is that Chris died of starvation—the regular kind of starvation, which results from not eating enough food over a prolonged period—not from some farfetched and imaginary sort of starvation.
From a survivalist’s point of view, the mistakes that Chris made were enormous and egregious. He was ill-prepared and had poor skills. He was idealistic and stubborn in the face of forces greater than him. There are lessons in all of this. But there are no real lessons that can come from a falsified account of his death: that has given us nothing but confusion and disillusionment.

[Sam Thayer is the author of “The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.”  His web site is He can also be reached at Forager’s Harvest, W5066 State Hwy 86, Ogema, WI 54459]


Chris S. said...

I'd be interested in your thoughts on theory number 4.

Out this week:

Christopher Nyerges said...

Sam Thayer will be sending me his response in a while, which I will post.