Food Warning: This blog contains (research by people who are) nuts (about ancient animals and peoples).
How do you eat an elephant? The old motivational question is answered by ‘one bite at a time’. The same thing could perhaps be said about mammoths, and any other sort of well-preserved Pleistocene flesh. Here in Twilight Beasts Halls, we search news sources for strange tales of creatures long gone, for your reading pleasure, and often our own amusement too, if the truth be known! Earlier this year, there was a newspaper article, stating that wealthy adventurers of the 1950s Explorers Club of New York were pretty well ripped off by the Roosevelt Hotel, who served sea turtle and claimed it was 250,000 year old woolly mammoth and/or Megatherium prime rump steak. In that instance, no megafauna made it to the dinner table, but there have been other cases where modern humans have consumed frozen Pleistocene creatures, retrieved from icy landscapes.
When I was researching our blog post on bison, I remembered reading how the palaeontologist who had found Blue Babe, the famous, wonderfully preserved 36,000 year old Yukon bison, had made a stew of some parts. When we aren’t manning social media, we do have chats with friends, and this had led to some entertaining chats off-line with Ruth Carden, ChristyAnn Darwent and Kelly Eldridge, all well-established Friends of the Beasts on Twitter! It was whispered by the two latter scientists that they knew colleagues who had actually eaten Ice Age meat. What on earth would it be like to eat meat that old, we wondered? Would it be horrifically ‘off’? Or just plain leathery and inedible? And did the Glacial Maximum gourmets survive their experiences, or did they … well…. have to sit on the loo for a very, very long time the next day? Here at Twilight Beasts we ask the questions other blogs are too afraid to! The wonderful Kelly and Chris made a point of contacting one of the few people who can say they most certainly have been on a (brief) Palaeolithic diet – and survived!
The following story is thanks to both Kelly and Chris. Names have been omitted where requested to protect the innocent… and the guilty!
Dr David Yesner is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and had met Mr X (as we shall call him) at the 3rd International Mammoth Conference, held in Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, in 2003. Yesner was delighted to meet and converse with a fellow enthusiast of circumpolar megafauna, especially one who was as passionate and knowledgeable on the topic as Mr X. They kept in touch after the conference, until in 2011 they met up again, after Yesner was called to sit on two PhD defence committees in Europe.
Shortly after discharging his duties on the defense committees, Yesner found himself visiting Mr X at his house, which was crammed full of what is probably the largest private collection of mammoth remains in the world. Mr X has been collecting for more than forty years, and boasts an impressive assortment of materials (as well as an incredibly understanding spouse). A tour of the collection was followed by a home-cooked meal; during after-dinner drinks, the gentleman asked Yesner if he wanted to try some mammoth. As you do. “I just happen to have a piece of the Jarkov Mammoth sitting in my freezer,” he said.
Now, you may have heard of the Jarkov Mammoth. This completely intact 18,000 year-old Mammuthus primigenus specimen, found by a young boy while out hunting on the Taymyr Peninsula in 1997, was blocked-out and airlifted to an ice cave in 1999, where it was slowly thawed out by researchers. Sitting at a kitchen table 5000 km and 12 years removed from its original resting place, Yesner consumed a small piece of its raw, frozen flesh.
“It melted in my mouth, but was very chewy,” he reminisced. “Imagine the worst freezer-burned meat you’ve ever eaten in your life.” Later that evening, Yesner also tried frozen marrow, scooped out of a mammoth bone that had been dredged up from somewhere in the North Sea. He said it tasted much better than the Jarkov meat; apparently gelatinous marrow doesn’t freezer-burn easily, no matter how many thousands of years old it is.
Image taken from https://www.spreadshirt.com/mammoths+t-shirts – yes, you can actually buy tee shirts for mammoth meals!
Yesner – and Mr X – join an exclusive club of palaeontologists who have put their money where their mouth is (literally) and consumed ancient meat. Charles Darwin may have sampled every species he wrote of, but in April 1984 Dr Dale Guthrie cooked up and ate part of the iconic frozen bison Blue Babe, stating that “A small part of the mummy’s neck was diced and simmered in a pot of stock and vegetables. 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”.
One of the participants, Björn Kurten added that none of the dozen or so scientists who shared the stew suffered any ill-effects from it, which if anything really made me realise how intensely cold the Ice Age actually was. The temperatures of the Pleistocene were cold enough to deep-freeze this bison so well that there were still traces of coagulated blood within the fatal wounds, which were inflicted by the claws of a cave Lion (Panthera spelaea). Place yourself in the mind-set of surviving every day in those conditions, where if you paused too long you’d freeze; imagine the courage of the ancients to go out hunting in that kind of coldness. Understanding that tenacity and talent for survival, I found myself filled with a new admiration for H. sapiens and H. neanderthalensis alike.
Now, I’m not a meat eater, and haven’t been for many years, but some odd part of me envied those paleontologists who shared a big hearty stew of ancient bison or mammoth in the culinary footsteps of the peoples of the Ice Age, and how it must have felt, sitting down to the table with the shadow of our ancestors cast over the pot. Nigella and Gordon – eat your hearts out!
Turtle stew instead of mammoths! Read about it here.
Blue Babe: A messenger from the Ice Age. Here.
Guthrie, R.D., (1988). Blue Babe: the story of a steppe bison mummy from Ice Age Alaska. Alaska UA Museum. [Book]
Mol, D., Coppens, Y., Tikhonov, A.N., Agenbroad, L.D., MacPhee, R.D.E., Flemming, C., Greenwood, A., Buigues, B., De Marliave, C., Van Geel, B. and Van Reenen, G.B.A., 2001, ‘The Jarkov mammoth: 20,000-year-old carcass of a Siberian woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius (Blumenbach, 1799)’. In Proceedings of the 1st International Congress’ The World of Elephants ‘(Roma) pp. 305-309 . [Full article]