Thursday, 27 February 2020


One of the first scientific accounts of a well-preserved woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) frozen in Siberia described the meat as enticingly red and marbled but smelling so putrid that researchers could only tolerate a minute in its proximity.

Despite this initial review, numerous apocryphal tales exist of dinners made from centuries-old mammoths found frozen whole in clear blocks of ice. These accounts have not only enchanted the public but also heavily influenced early scientific thought on Quaternary extinctions and climate; many researchers resorting to catastrophism to explain the instantaneous freezing necessary to preserve palatable meat.

The possibility of cloning is now the major draw of frozen mammoths but the public remains curious about eating prehistoric meat, especially because some modern paleontologists have credibly described tasting mammoth and extinct bison found preserved in permafrost.

Although less publicized today, eating study specimens was once common practice for researchers. Charles Darwin belonged to a club dedicated to tasting exotic meats, and in his first book wrote almost three times as much about dishes like armadillo and tortoise urine than he did on the biogeography of his Galapagos finches.

One of the most famously strange scientific meals occurred on January 13, 1951, at the 47th Explorers Club Annual Dinner (ECAD) when members purportedly dined on frozen woolly mammoth. The prehistoric meat was supposedly found on Akutan Island in Alaska, USA, by the eminent polar explorers Father Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, “the Glacier Priest,” and Captain George Francis Kosco of the US Navy.

This much-publicized meal captured the public’s imagination and became an enduring legend and source of pride for the Club, popularizing an annual menu of “exotics” that continues today, making the Club as well-known for its notorious hors d’oeuvres like fried tarantulas and goat eyeballs as it is for its notable members such as Teddy Roosevelt and Neil Armstrong.

The Yale Peabody Museum holds a sample of meat preserved from the 1951 meal, interestingly labelled as a South American Giant Ground Sloth, Megatherium, not Mammoth.

Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas
The specimen of meat from that famous meal was originally designated BRCM 16925 before a transfer in 2001 from the Bruce Museum to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (New Haven, CT, USA) where it gained the number YPM MAM 14399.

The specimen is now permanently deposited in the Yale Peabody Museum with the designation YPM HERR 19475 and is accessible to outside researchers. The meat was never fixed in formalin and was initially stored in isopropyl alcohol before being transferred to ethanol when it arrived at the Peabody Museum. DNA extraction occurred at Yale University in a clean room with equipment reserved exclusively for aDNA analyses.

In 2016, Jessica Glass and her colleagues sequenced a fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene and studied archival material to verify its identity, which if genuine, would extend the range of Megatherium over 600% and alter views on ground sloth evolution. Their results showed that the meat was not Mammoth or Megatherium, but a bit of Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas. So much for elaborate legends. The prehistoric dinner was likely meant as a publicity stunt. Glass's study emphasizes the value of museums collecting and curating voucher specimens, particularly those used for evidence of extraordinary claims. Not so long before Glass et al. did their experiment, a friend's mother (and my kayaking partners) served up a steak from her freezer to dinner guests in Castlegar that hailed from 1978. Tough? Inedible? I have it on good report that the meat was surprisingly divine.

Reference: Glass, J. R., Davis, M., Walsh, T. J., Sargis, E. J., & Caccone, A. (2016). Was Frozen Mammoth or Giant Ground Sloth Served for Dinner at The Explorers Club?. PloS one, 11(2), e0146825.