What Happens to Meat When You Freeze It for 35,000 Years

A gastronomic investigation of mammoth feasts

Drawing of woolly mammoth with other Pleistocene animals
Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Up in the Arctic cold, frozen woolly-mammoth carcasses can be so well preserved that they still have blood in their veins. Their flesh is still pink—which means that, of course, yes, someone has thought about eating it. Tales of dining on woolly mammoths frozen since the Ice Age range from the fantastical to the truer and grosser. Let us start—why not?—with the fantastical stories.

In 1901, an expedition to the Beresovca River in Siberia found a male mammoth so exquisitely preserved that it still had grass in its mouth. The mammoth’s bones and skin were put on display in St. Petersburg, and its flesh was, supposedly, served at a “mammoth banquet.” The meal was a hit, according to one glowing account, ”particularly the course of mammoth steak, which all the learned guests declared was agreeable to the taste, and not much tougher than some of the sirloin furnished by butchers of today.”

Half a century later, the Explorers Club put on its own exotic feast in New York. This time, the prehistoric flesh reportedly came from a carcass found in the Aleutian Islands, by a Jesuit-turned-geologist known as the Glacier Priest. Each diner got mere slivers of meat, but those slivers made quite the impression. Guests went home bragging of their Ice Age dinner. But they later disagreed over whether the meat was really supposed to be mammoth or mastodon or an extinct giant sloth called megatherium.

In any case, DNA analysis of meat from the 1951 dinner eventually proved it was none of the above. It wasn’t even prehistoric at all. Its DNA matched green sea turtle, a modern and living species. As for the 1901 banquet, well, that couldn’t have been mammoth either. “All stories published in newspapers of this country of a dinner in St. Petersburg where the meat of the Beresovca mammoth was served, are a hundred per cent invention,” the paleontologist I. P. Tolmachoff wrote in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society back in 1929. As Tolmachoff also wrote, woolly-mammoth meat frozen for tens of thousands of years is “absolutely unpalatable” with “an intolerable putrid smell.” It is not something that belongs on a dinner table. It is certainly not something that belongs in a human mouth.

Which brings us to the true stories of eating—or attempting to eat—frozen mammoth.

In the 18th and 19th century, explorers to Siberia wrote that the region’s indigenous people, the Evenki, occasionally fed their dogs mammoth meat. But humans have generally been less enthusiastic about eating it. Over tens of thousands of years, the things that make meat tasty turn quite foul.

Fat is one problem. It turns to soap—specifically, a substance called adipocere, also known as “corpse wax” or “grave wax” when it’s found in human bodies left in cool, wet conditions. Paleontologists have noticed it in the fat of woolly mammoths too, even though extremely cold conditions are thought to inhibit the microbes that turn fat into adipocere. The substance could have formed in Siberia, says Shari Forbes, a forensics expert at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, if temperatures ever fluctuated over tens of thousands of years. Adipocere, she adds, can have the texture of cottage cheese. The smell is rancid. “I know why people would not want to eat it!,” she wrote to me in an email.

The muscle of the frozen mammoths changes as well, like meat left in the freezer for too long. (In this case, many, many millennia too long.) The formation of ice crystals would pierce the muscle fibers of the meat, says Matt Hartings, a food chemist at American University. Frozen, the meat might still be reasonably solid and, well, meat-like. But once defrosted, he says, “it’ll be turned into a goo.”

In fact, Dmitry V. Arzyutov, a historian at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, wrote earlier this year that Russian paleontologists he interviewed about woolly mammoths “had tried to fry mammoth meat, but it had turned into a smelly liquid.” Not that this has stopped certain mammoth hunters. In the recent woolly-mammoth documentary Genesis 2.0, one expeditioner even chews raw Ice Age meat on camera.

“It looks for me like a common practice among them,” Arzyutov added to me in an email. Male bravado, he suggested, may have something to do with it.