My dad and I were discussing how long meat kept in the freezer remains safe for consumption. He mentioned that an organization called the Explorers Club had thawed out a prehistoric woolly mammoth, cooked it, and eaten it. This seemed dubious at best to me, so I thought I'd ask that great font of wisdom, Unca Cece. Has anyone in modern times ever eaten a preserved piece of prehistory? --Garth Lewis, via e-mail
What's the dubious part? Mammoth meat exists; ergo, someone's tried to eat it. Forget Fear Factor--anyone old enough to remember when hot food was regularly served on domestic flights can tell you: some people will eat anything.
Old-time paleontology lore is full of tales in which half-starved explorers or hunters defrost an icebound mammoth carcass, but most of these are impossible to verify and sound far-fetched at best. In a fairly skeptical-seeming 1872 item the New York Times passed along a report from some French adventurers trying for the North Pole who claimed to have found in Russia so many well-preserved mammoth specimens that for a time they "lived entirely on mammoth meat, broiled, roasted and baked." The nature novelist James Oliver Curwood, who traveled extensively in northwestern Canada, told the Chicago Tribune in 1912 about dining with Indians who'd happened upon a frozen mastodon (not the same as a mammoth, but close enough for our purposes); he described his steak's color as "deep red or mahogany" and its flavor (somewhat unimaginatively, I'd say) as "old and dry." Accounts once flourished of "mammoth banquets" held in Saint Petersburg and Paris, but most sources now consider these apocryphal.
Anyone picturing a whole delicious world of mammoths up there in nature's freezer case needs to face some basic facts. First, undamaged carcasses don't turn up too often. Only a few near-intact mammoths have been discovered in the last 30 years or so--the extremely well-preserved calf found in Siberia this May being the latest--and a 1961 article in Science magazine reports that of 39 carcasses found to that point just 4 were reasonably complete. True, more remains will emerge as global warming thaws out the permafrost, but this brings us to our second problem: the meat that does survive is nearly always revolting. The Science article says that "all the frozen specimens were rotten," and though some firsthand accounts of long-ago mammoth finds have claimedthe flesh looked OK, typically it smelled horrifying and only wild scavengers and the locals' dogs would eat it.
Even when mammoth meat isn't actually putrid, it still doesn't make great eating. According to Richard Stone's book Mammoth (2001), Russian zoologist Alexei Tikhonov (who figures in articles about the recent Siberian find) once tried a bite and said "it was awful. It tasted like meat left too long in a freezer."
With this in mind, it makes sense that the most legit claims of dining on prehistoric meat don't involve big juicy sirloins but rather the odd edible chunk or two. And so to dad's contention, Garth: The Explorers Club, a venerable association of heavy-duty scientists and adventure hounds, is best known to the public for its Annual Dinner, when members converge on New York, break out the finery, and tuck into a menu stocked with thrill-seeker fare--tarantula, scorpion, and the like. According to club archivist Clare Flemming, the 1951 fete did in fact feature mammoth, but only as part of the preprandial smorgasbord, not as an entree; a review of the event in the Christian Science Monitor describes a morsel of meat supposedly recovered from Akutan Island, in the Aleutians. (Other delicacies included green turtle soup, giant Pacific spider crabs, bison steak, and cheese straws, which if nothing else suggests that in 1950s Manhattan cheese straws were considered a lot more exotic than they are today.) Flemming also found correspondence in which paleontologist Coleman Williams mentions (apropos of his tenure on the club's dinner committee) preparing a dish from balls of marrow found in the bones of a 50,000-year-old horse.
One of the best-documented accounts of a prehistoric meal comes at the end of Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe (1990), by Alaska zoology professor Dale Guthrie. After successfully unearthing and preserving "Blue Babe," a 36,000-year-old steppe bison found near Fairbanks in 1979, Guthrie's team celebrates by simmering some leftover flesh from Babe's neck "in a pot of stock and vegetables." The author reports that "the meat was well aged but still a little tough, and it gave the stew a strong Pleistocene aroma." Now, I'm all for scientific esprit de corps, and I'm not by nature an incurious sort, but I'll say right now I don't see the appeal. Let's keep it simple: frozen meat from tundra = specimen; frozen meat from freezer = dinner. Study the mammoths and eat the burgers, and anyone who craves that great prehistoric taste can wash 'em down with Tab.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.