The first time I heard about eating a mammoth was in the mid ’70s – a huge exhibition was held in Turin, sponsored by the government of the USSR, and among the exhibits there was a baby mammoth.
And there was this brochure that explained that mammoths were found along the Lena river, in Siberia, and almost certainly one or two specimens had been “consumed as food” in the decades immediately before and after the Revolution.
But it turns out that there’s been a long-standing… story, or legend, or piece of spurious news, about that time they served mammoth meat at the Explorers Club in New York.
It was in 1951. The story was reported in The Christian Science Monitor, and a newspaper like that would never lie, right?
Well, actually it did – because the menu, that night in 1951, reports that Megatherium was being served… Megatherium being an extinct animal that looks like this…
And admittedly, if there’s something more gross than the idea of steaks made of the rump of some woolly elephant that’s been frozen for a few tens of thousand years, is the idea of steaks off the rump of an equally-long frozen sloth.
But now it turns out that it was not Megatherium, nor Mammoth, after all.
Apparently a portion of the dish served that night was saved for one of the Club members1 that could not attend, it is still available today, and now it has been analyzed.
Testing DNA from sixty-years old cooked meat is not exactly a picnic (…), but now we know that on that fateful evening the members of the Explorers Club were offered Megatherium, but actually were served Chelonia mydas.
Which is an animal that looks like this…
A turtle. A green turtle, to be exact.
It was all part of some strange joke that was lost in the mist of time2.
So, it looks like if you really wanted to eat mammoth, in the twentieth century, you had to go hike in Siberia, after all.
I think we’ll have to look further into this mammoth-hunting thing, and learn more about mr Bassett Digby… watch this space.