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Menu miscue: Yale study prompts mammoth newspaper correction

In 1951, we reported that members of the Explorers Club dined on a 250,000-year-old extinct mammoth. Science has proven us wrong. 

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    A piece of turtle meat is preserved in a glass jar in this photo provided by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Wednesday in New Haven, Conn. Folklore says this meat was woolly mammoth or giant sloth. But new tests performed by Yale researchers found that a hunk of flesh served at a lavish 1951 Explorers Club dinner in New York featuring 'prehistoric meats" was something more mundane - turtle.
    Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History via AP
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Did a group of field scientists really gather in New York’s Roosevelt Hotel 65 years ago to dine on the meat of a 250,000-year-old mammoth?

You'd be forgiven for thinking so, because that’s exactly what The Christian Science Monitor reported in a 1951 article titled, “Mammoth Appetites Explore a ... Mammoth.” But, according a study led by Yale scientists, it turns out that our reporting was woolly.

In January 1951 freelancer Herbert B. Nichols attended the 47th annual dinner of the Explorers Club, a professional society of field researchers, from "anthropologists to zoologists," as the club's website notes, whose members have included Roald Amundsen, Edmund Hillary, and Neil Armstrong. 

As Mr. Nichols noted, this was no ordinary dinner. In addition to boiled Pacific spider crab, green turtle soup, and European bison, the menu, according to Nichols, also included an accommodation for the club's paleo dieters: 

Chief attraction at the smörgåsbord was a morsel of 250,000-year-old hair mammoth meat such as Teddy Roosevelt feasted on in Alaska years ago. It originally was intended that this delicacy would be sought for in quantity as the main dish of the evening, but the dinner committee found the cost per plate would be $495.74 [about $4,500 in 2015 dollars] (the price of raiding nature's original 'deep freeze' by hydraulic mining in the Valley of the Yukon on the chance of finding some).

This part of the menu was about to be canceled a few weeks ago when the Rev. Bernard Hubbard, better known as the 'Glacier Priest,' told the committee about his own private stock at a place called Wolly Cove on Akutan Island. This is where the Being Sea tightens up concentrated blizzards like coiled springs for furious unleashing far to the south. Thanks to his generosity in 'sharing the wealth' we all had a taste of the rarest mammalian tit-bit on earth.

The story, appearing as it did in the world's finest news outlet, was quickly accepted as proof that the banquet's attendees did indeed dine on a prehistoric pachyderm.

But, as Yale graduate students Jessica Glass and Matt Davis explain in their paper published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, you shouldn't believe a word of it. While the banquet's promoter, Wendell Phillips Dodge, promised that the menu would include "prehistoric meat," there's no evidence, beyond the Monitor's reporting, that it was a mammoth. 

Indeed, reports at the time suggest that the meat was something much rarer, Megatherium an extinct giant ground sloth. That's what the West Australian and the New York Herald Tribune reported at the time. 

If this is true, it's huge. It would be the first documented evidence of humans, ancient or otherwise, eating sloth. What's more, Megatherium is known to have lived only in South America. Evidence of this sloth genus in Alaska, the researchers drily note, would "rewrite what paleontologists know about ground sloth evolution."

So perhaps Nichols, whose scientific background was in botany, was actually sampling sloth meat, and, understandably lacking any basis for comparison, confused it with mammoth meat.

And this is where the trail would have gone cold in the mystery, had it not been for one member who wasn't able to attend the banquet but who requested a sample of the meat. Mr. Dodge complied, dutifully labelling the sample as a Megatherium. The specimen remained uneaten and eventually wound up at Yale, where Ms. Glass conducted a DNA analysis.

It turns out that the sample was not a sloth, either, but a green sea turtle, probably from the soup course. 

At the same time, Mr. Davis looked at the Explorer's Club archives, where he found a humorous editorial written by Dodge describing how he discovered a potion that can transmute sea turtle meat into sloth meat. The whole thing, it turns out, was a hoax. 

“It’s like a Halloween party where you put your hand in spaghetti, but they tell you it’s brains," says Davis in a Yale press release. "In this case, everyone actually believed it.” 

All that said, it's not unheard of for scientists to nibble on their study specimens. As the researchers point out, in "The Voyage of the Beagle," Charles Darwin devotes three times as many words describing meals such as armadillo and tortoise urine as he does describing the famous Galápagos finches.

Even specimens that are thousands of years old would have been fair game back then. In his book "Mammoth," science writer Richard Stone recounts explorers' tales of sampling mammoth and mastadon.

These animals are preserved not in giant blocks of ice, as many cartoons would have you believe, but in permanently frozen dirt.

"The meat wouldn’t taste good," said Davis, reflecting on what would be humanity's most egregious violation of the five-second rule, "but you could eat it.”

But, as Glass and Davis demonstrated, that's almost certainly not what happened at the Explorer's Club dinner in 1951. The Monitor regrets the error.

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