March 29, 2008

Mammoth Meat

Stupid Question ™
Feb. 14, 2005
By John Ruch
© 2005

Q: Has anybody ever eaten the meat of a frozen mammoth?
—Dan F., Columbus, Ohio

A: There is no reliable report of a modern human eating any part of a frozen mammoth—and very few unreliable reports, for that matter.

The story seems to have sprouted from a thought-about-it-but-decided-not-to report from a groundbreaking mammoth find in 1903. And the idea of people feasting on flash-frozen mammoth steaks has become a staple of loony fundamentalist Christian literature, feeding their ideas of a young Earth and a Biblical flood that knocked off prehistoric species.

All that being said, there is a solid example of a scientist and his friends tasting the flesh of a similarly frozen bison. However, that case—involving a dry, tough scrap of flesh boiled in a stew—only underlines why frozen mummy flesh is not generally eaten.

It must also be noted that dogs and scavenging animals have certainly eaten frozen mammoth meat. So at least it is true that modern animals have had the rare experience of feasting on meat aged 10,000 years or more, since the days when our ancestors were hunting the beasts with spears.

The mammoth-meat idea rests on misconceptions. Mammoths (and other frozen, mummified fossil animals ranging from rhinos to mice) are found in frozen silt, not a giant ice cube.

The silt may contain veins of ice. Also, the corpses are often immediately surrounded by ice created by the drawing out of moisture from the body itself, which results in the mummification. Nonetheless, when these things thaw enough to be discovered, they are in balls of muck, not a piece of ice. This also means they are desiccated, not big, juicy hunks of meat—though unquestionably some red meat is still preserved in certain specimens.

Only a couple mammoths have been found in anywhere near an intact state. Most were already scavenged, preyed upon and/or decayed to some degree before their freezing in the permafrost, leaving little soft tissue behind. And when they become exposed, typically through erosion, they start to rot fast. Thawed soft tissue is quickly consumed by modern scavengers.

The organic muck combined with the rotting of whatever flesh remains produces what is reportedly an unbelievable stench.

So, to recap, finding a mammoth is not walking into nature’s meat locker. It’s exhuming an icy grave.

Frozen mammoths are found in Siberia. It is not out of the realm of imagination that someone in such a harsh climate would consider eating some mammoth flesh. However, there is no reputable report of it.

It should be remembered that in early times, mammoths were exclusively found only by being washed out into the open, and could be reached by scientific investigators only after months or even years, and even then with no refrigeration equipment to preserve the find.

There’s a stray 1800s report from a Russian scientist who claimed that one tribe, the Yukats, occasionally ate mammoth meat, but his was not an eyewitness account. He did note, like many other reputable reports, that the Yukats’ dogs sometimes ate the meat, which is a more likely explanation for any missing flesh. Especially because the Yukats, like all other natives of the region, have a strong taboo about unearthing mammoth fossils. (Theoretically, this could be rooted in bad dining experiences of the past, but there’s no evidence of that.)

Going much farther back, about 2,000 years, there’s a Chinese tale that refers to underground beasts in the north whose flesh can be eaten as a kind of jerky. This has been presented as referring to mammoths, and may well do so. However, it is not first-hand information and is part of a highly fanciful account of foreign regions, replete with diamond-bladed swords and the like.

The crux of the whole issue appears to be the 1903 scientific examination of the Berezkova, Siberia, mammoth, the find that put “frozen mammoth” into the popular consciousness.

Otto Herz led the expedition to the site, which back then was a months-long journey across barren tundra and across mountain ranges. Once they finally located the mammoth, the Siberian winter was already coming in and the men were subsisting on horsemeat—a context that is probably significant in what Herz later reported.

To wit: He said some of the mammoth’s meat remained red and marbled with fat and appeared “as fresh as well-frozen beef or horse meat. It looked so appetizing that we wondered for some time whether we should not taste it, but no one would venture to take it into his mouth, and horseflesh was given the preference.”

The party’s dogs did eat some of the meat, he added. Note that while it looked pretty yummy—it wasn’t yummy enough. Herz also reported that the find stunk to holy heck, so that probably dissuaded even the least picky eaters in the group.

It’s worth noting the Berezkova find was one of the most complete ever, with an unusual amount of soft tissue intact.

I can find no record since then, in all the ensuing mammoth finds, of anybody popping the meat in their mouths. Typically, it’s the local dogs who benefit.

That brings us to sole reputable report of modern eating of ancient meat. In “Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe,” R. Dale Guthrie, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, describes his inspection of the 1979 find of “Blue Babe,” a 36,000-year-old frozen bison. The carcass had already been largely eaten in prehistory, but, Guthrie reports, it still showed some red muscle.

After a thorough examination of the remains, which were kept frozen in a lab, Blue Babe was reconstructed with taxidermy for museum display. That task done, Guthrie set about eating part of the ancient bison along with taxidermist Eirik Granqvist, the late paleontologist Bjorn Kurten and apparently unnamed others.

“A small part of the mummy’s neck was diced and simmered in a pot of stock and vegetables,” Guthrie wrote. “We had Blue Babe for dinner. The meat was well aged but still a little tough, and it gave the stew a strong Pleistocene aroma, but nobody there would have dared miss it.” Kurten later wrote that the bison stew was “agreeable.”

Guthrie was an experienced hunter who had a very well-preserved corpse on his hands—he had washed it out of the sediments himself and kept it frozen from the first moment until examination in a controlled lab. That—and probably the aura of the preexisting mammoth-eating legends, probably influenced his decision to munch.

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