Prehistoric Mystery Meat: It's What's for Dinner

Fifty years after it was served, researchers have cracked the case of one very strange menu item.

A woman looks at a frozen woolly mammoth at the Central House of Artist in Moscow. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

A few weeks before the Explorers Club held its annual dinner in 1951, the organization—a society for field researchers and dedicated adventurers— received a letter with a strange request. It came from Paul Howes, a taxidermist, diorama-painter, and curator at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Dear Explorers Club:

Unfortunately I will have to be away at the time of the annual dinner, but I am so anxious to have a fragment of that 250,000 year-old mastodon (?) meat for this museum that I had planned to secretly pocket my share, and exhibit here for all time instead of swallowing it.

Would the Club let me have my tidbit preserved for this purpose if I sent in my $9.50, although I cannot be there to get it myself on the night of the dinner? This is a crazy request, but then you know explorers! I don’t see why anybody else should get my share either, so if you all say ‘yes’ I will send the check and an official bottle of preservative in which to drop this remarkable item, then we will have something here besides models and pictures and a couple of spare teeth to brag about.

Howes almost had it right—according to rumor, the Club was going to be serving mammoth, not mastodon. The meat had supposedly been hacked from an icy carcass in the Aleutian Islands by a Jesuit-turned-geologist named Bernard Hubbard, nicknamed the Glacier Priest for his intrepid trips across the Arctic. Hubbard claimed to know of a stash of ancient meat, and when he heard the Club had been trying to find some, he had a sampling flown down to New York. There in the Grand Ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, hundreds of scientists and explorers—hiking boots and pith helmets swapped out for tuxedoes—would dig into the prehistoric snack as they traded stories about their latest adventures and sipped drinks cooled with bits of Alaskan glacier.

The meat was gone in a flash: The priest had apparently only sent enough for every guest to try a small sliver. But one slice, as Howes had requested, was carefully slipped into the preserving bottle that he had mailed to the hotel. From there, it was sent back to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, and displayed in the mammal room.

And there it sat for two decades, a grayish lump in a jar—hardly a priority for kids with dinosaurs and other flesh-eating beasts on the brain. In 2001, the meat was transferred to the Yale Peabody Museum, along with a few other curiosities, and filed away in a back room.

* * *

As a Ph.D. candidate in paleontology at Yale and a student member of the Explorers Club, Matt Davis had heard the story of the mammoth steak. He knew it to be the first—and strangest—in the club’s tradition of serving odd foodstuffs, a practice it continues today. (More recent menus have included deep-fried tarantulas, martinis garnished with goat eyeballs, and the barbecued sex organs of bulls.) He knew that tour guides at the Explorers Club headquarters on New York’s  Upper East Side often took visitors into the trophy room, pointing out the tusk of the mammoth whose meat had been eaten in 1951.

He also knew that the story was probably apocryphal. “When they dug up one of the best-preserved wooly mammoths in Siberia, the meat looked fresh: It was red and marbled with white fat,” he told me. “But once it’s open to the air and it’s melting, it quickly gets putrid.”

What Davis didn’t know was that Yale had a sample of the meat in question. And the jar sitting somewhere in the Peabody Museum wasn’t labeled as wooly mammoth or mastodon. Instead, it was listed as Megatherium, an extinct species of giant South American ground sloth.

In September 2014, a professor of Davis’s casually mentioned the sample over lunch; soon afterwards, his curiosity piqued, Davis found himself in the bowels of the Peabody, peering at the unraveling strands of mystery meat. It was the first time he’d seen it. The mammal fossils he studies are stored in the museum’s basement, and he almost never ventures up into the “wet collections,” where lizards and snakes float serenely in jars of alcohol. Paul Howes’ serving of meat was on a shelf in a back corner of the vertebrate wet-collections room, beside containers of preserved baby monkeys, the hair on their faces rippling like sea grass. The label on the meat was unequivocal: This is the Megatherium meat served at an Explorers Club dinner in 1951. The text contained no mention of mammoth at all.

“When I read the label, my first thought was, ‘We need to charter a helicopter to fly out to Alaska to go find the rest of this guy!’” said Davis.

His excitement was understandable. Sloths haven’t always been the meek, sluggish animals we know today. Millions of years ago, one now-extinct species swam off the Pacific coast of South America, diving down to chomp on aquatic vegetation. Other species lumbered around like bears, rearing up on their hind legs to strip branches of their leaves. Megatherium was one of these. As Davis described it to me, it was roughly the size and weight of two SUVs stacked one on top of the other. And its remains had never been found father north than Peru.

If this meat had indeed been unearthed on the island of Akutan, as the Explorers Club claimed, and if it was indeed Megatherium, Davis would have just discovered “the largest range expansion ever.” Even if it were another species of ground sloth—like one that had been found on mainland Alaska, thousands of miles away from Akutan—it would still be the paleontological equivalent of winning the lottery.

* * *

Yet Davis didn’t fly out to the volcanic shores of Akutan. It would’ve been crazy, setting off on a treasure hunt for an unidentified carcass that may not even be there. Instead, he teamed up with another grad student named Jessica Glass—a geneticist who studies fish—and a few other scientists to figure out what this meat actually was.

Glass had known about the meat since around 2006; as an undergraduate at Yale, she had worked as an assistant at Peabody, processing new specimens as they were brought into the museum. As a student assistant, she’d identified minnows and skinned ducks. One day, she’d come in to work to find an ostrich head in the sink; another time, she found a bag on the floor that said, “Do not open until the other zebra has been processed.”

Even with all this under her belt, she found the story of the Explorers Club meat bizarre—she couldn’t stop imagining people gulping down what is basically an ancient cadaver. “Think about how weird that is. You don’t know how it died, how long it’s been dead,” she said.

Identifying the animal would prove difficult. We live in an age of easy DNA analysis—spit in a vial, and six to eight weeks later, you can start exploring the nooks and crannies of your genome—but with ancient DNA, it’s not so simple. “DNA degrades over time, and when the animal dies there are no more repair mechanisms,” explained Glass. “That means the strand of DNA would break up into tiny, tiny pieces.” And 250,000 years allow for a whole lot of disintegration.

It’s possible to sequence those DNA fragments, but if you get any other bit of genetic material in your solution—a cat hair, say, or one of your own cells, or a bacterium that’s floating around in the air—chances are the DNA analysis will pick up on that instead. The newer, still-intact DNA can obscure the ancient bits, the way the lights of Times Square can overwhelm Orion’s Belt.

The Explorers Club meat was even more likely to be contaminated, because it had been cooked in a stew. Glass had no idea what other ingredients she might accidentally unearth. But as curious as she was about the dinner, the mystery she wanted to crack was paleontological rather than culinary.

To reduce the risk of adulterating her precious sample, she went through an elaborate ritual each time she ventured into the lab: She showered at home, and changed into a fresh set of clothes when she arrived, to make sure she hadn’t tracked in any pollen or bacteria from the street. She walked over sticky mats, to clean the soles of her shoes. And then she pulled on a hair net, strapped on a mask, snapped on gloves, and slipped into a lab coat. “You have to be careful you don’t sneeze or cough,” she said. “Or breathe too much.”

Then, with tweezers and a razor blade, she began to dissect. She took a chunk out of the center, so nervous to be working on such a precious sample that she didn’t quite trust her hands. Once she’d cut out five 250-milligram chunks, she let them soak in a series of solutions that would dissolve the flesh and release the DNA. With a centrifuge, she filtered out the genetic material from all those other particles. After spending several weekends in the lab—the process took months, as she was still spending her weekdays on her fish research—she finally had enough DNA to sequence.

But the genetic data that came back didn’t match with mammoth or Megatherium. It didn’t match with any prehistoric mammals at all. Instead, it was green sea turtle—endangered, but still very much alive.

* * *

“It was the equivalent of having people over for Halloween,” Davis said of the prehistoric meat. “You give people spaghetti and say, ‘Ew, you’re touching brains.’”

The historical record backs his theory up. After the dinner, the event’s organizer, the theatre impresario Wendell Phillips Dodge, tried to admit that it was a hoax: He wrote in the Club’s quarterly, The Explorers Journal, that he may have found a way to transform turtle into sloth. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. But no one picked up on Dodge’s winks or the nudges, and his prank was mostly ignored. The Christian Science Monitor had already published an article claiming that the meat was mammoth, and the news quickly spread.

The meat is still sitting beside mammals in jars in a back room. Its label still reads “Megatherium.” But some day soon its identification will be updated. The jar will be moved a few shelves over, leaving behind its monkey neighbors to join the reptiles.

Davis and Glass, who published their findings earlier this week in PLOS, aren’t too disappointed that their jackpot has turned into fool’s gold. To Glass, who’s now in South Africa studying fish diversity, it raises questions about the thousands of other jars that are gathering dust beside it. “Who knows what mysteries are behind them?” she said.

But a hint of nostalgia creeps into Davis’s voice when he talks about the Explorers Club’s 1951 dinner. “It was so popular, people liked it so much, that a few years later that they kicked it up a notch,” he said of the mammoth meal. “’We’re going to have polar bear,’ ‘We’re going to have fried termites.’  For better or for worse, that’s what the Club is known for today. People aren’t following polar expeditions in the news anymore.”

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