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How Did Christopher Candless Die?

I’ve had several people talk to me about Christopher Candless after they have either read the book or watched the movie Into The Wild. People will often say something about how careful you have to be to not be poisoned by wild edibles. I think I feel a bit like Sam Thayer on this topic. There are some pretty severe problems with the book and movie and one should keep in mind that the truth is very seldom told in movies. The same can be said for fictional novels and Into The Wild is just that. It is not a report of the facts. It is fiction based on one persons theory.

Recently a friend sent me a link to an article written on this topic once again trying to prove the theory that Chris was poisoned and that is how he died. I feel it is important to take all factors into account when looking at this and any similar issues. The main thing I want to get across is that you can safely eat a lot of things from the wild if you just educate yourself and you should not be fearful of learning these things. There are a lot of good resources out there to help teach the topic and when you combine all the options for a proper education (books, resources and field experience) you can safely enjoy much from the wild.

Here are my thoughts:

I’d say there are several factors that killed Chris.

  • He was very small to begin with (Small stature, no reserves)
  • He went to one of the most barren places on earth (Foolishness)
  • He lacked the proper skills and knowledge to eat properly (He’d never been to this location and had mainly just book learning)
  • He had a limited diet (His choice of location limited his caloric intake)
  • Already weak and on a limited diet he ate mainly one thing that has potential in large quantities to make a weak person sick (The poisoning suggested will only effect a person near death already)

The recent article tried to tie his death to a poisoning that was seen in death camps during the Holocaust. The problem with this idea is that while he was sick enough already because of his foolish choices his account does not follow what was documented for Lathyrism. I sent my thoughts to Samuel Thayer and asked for his take and he replied with the following which I received permission to post:

I need to post a thorough reply to this. But your assessment is pretty accurate, in my opinion.
Lathyrism only affects people who are starving, so this info doesn’t change that assessment. The presence of the protein that causes lathyrism is not strong evidence at all–I eat three differeent wild plants known to contain that protein, and several more are domesticated and regularly eaten by hundreds of millions of people.
There are also some serious reasons to doubt the symptoms pointing to lathyrism: Chris was walking around 5 weeks after the supposed paralysis event, yet the paralysis from lathyrism is permanent and irreversible. Second, the time elapsed between consumption and onset of symptoms was not sufficient for the disease to develop, according to everything I can find about lathyrism.
Lathyrism is not a new idea. All people who teach about wild edibles should be aware of the disease and its basic requirements. That Krakauer didn’t think of this somewhat irrelevant idea right away indicates his ignorance.
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