Jon Krakauer was right about Christopher McCandless’s death, sort of

Senior Editor
09.15.13 13 Comments

Into the Wild and its subject Christopher McCandless were in the news again recently when a kid who supposedly idolized McCandless went missing a few weeks ago. The copycat part of the story turned out to be horsefeathers, but it reminded everyone that there was still some controversy surrounding McCandless’s death. Had he inadvertently poisoned himself with wild potato seeds, as hypothosized by Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer, or had he simply starved to death, as others later claimed?

In a new New Yorker article, Krakauer lays out how he was wrong in his initial speculation:

According to my hypothesis, a toxic alkaloid in the seeds weakened McCandless to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation. Because Hedysarum alpinum is described as a nontoxic species in both the scientific literature and in popular books about edible plants, my conjecture was met with no small amount of derision, especially in Alaska.

Shortly before my book was published, Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and one of his graduate students, Edward Treadwell, conducted a preliminary test that indicated the seeds contained an unidentified alkaloid. Making a rash intuitive leap, in the first edition of “Into the Wild,” published in January, 1996, I wrote that this alkaloid was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation. When Clausen and Treadwell completed their analysis of wild-potato seeds, though, they found no trace of swainsonine or any other alkaloids. “I tore that plant apart,” Dr. Clausen explained to Men’s Journal in 2007, after also testing the seeds for non-alkaloid compounds. “There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I’d eat it myself.”

Now, according to some new research by Ronald Hamilton, it seems Krakauer was right about McCandless poisoning himself, but wrong about the culprit. Hamilton offers evidence that McCandless may have been an amino acid called ODAP, rather than the alkaloid they were originally looking for.

The injurious substance in the plant turned out to be a neurotoxin, beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta diaminoproprionic acid, a compound commonly referred to as beta-ODAP or, more often, just ODAP.

According to Dr. Fernand Lambein, a Belgian scientist who coördinates the Cassava Cyanide Diseases and Neurolathyrism Network, occasional consumption of foodstuffs containing ODAP “as one component of an otherwise balanced diet, bears not any risk of toxicity.” Lambein and other experts warn, however, that individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin.

Considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds.

You should definitely give the whole article a read, but to make a long story short, ODAP can cause paralysis, beginning in the legs, which would’ve rendered McCandless unable to hunt, symptoms that sound similar to what McCandless was describing in his last notes, and probably resulted in his eventual starvation.

So to the question of whether McCandless poisoned himself or starved, the answer is yes. And since ODAP wasn’t described in any of his books on foraging, it wasn’t necessarily McCandless’s negligence or inexperience that killed him. I mean, other than the first part about selling all his stuff and living out in the woods where no one could bring his crippled ass a cheeseburger. I think I’ll stick to poisoning myself with alcohol, caffeine, and high-fructose corn syrup, thank you very much. You can have nature, it sounds like a fart-smelling hellhole if you ask me. He probably couldn’t even get wifi out there.

Write a song about this jack-off couch, Eddie Vedder.

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