The Explorers Club mystery meat

Since 1905 The Explorers Club, which promotes scientific exploration and field study, has been holding annual dinners known for serving adventurous, exotic cuisine. One of the most talked about dinners was in 1951 when the club reportedly served woolly mammoth meat from Alaska. Since that dinner, there has been much debate about the woolly mammoth main course.

TRANSCRIPT

Since 1905, the Explorers Club, which promotes scientific exploration and field study, has been holding annual dinners known for serving adventurous, exotic cuisine.

One of the most talked-about dinners was in 1951, when the club reportedly served woolly-mammoth meat from Alaska.

Since that dinner, there's been much debate about the woolly-mammoth main course.

Scientist Jessica Glass of Yale University joins us to discuss that infamous meal.

Could it have happened?

Could there have been woolly-mammoth meat?

Absolutely. Yeah.

There's cases in the past of scientists uncovering woolly-mammoth meat that was so well-preserved that the meat actually looked edible.

It was never found in blocks of ice, but rather frozen in permafrost.

And the Explorers Club had always served meat and exotic animals from expeditions that its club members went on.

And so it was definitely plausible that woolly mammoth could've been served at that dinner.

But where would they have been roaming, and where would it have been found in 1951?

So, supposedly, it was found on Akutan Island, in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

And woolly mammoths have been found all over North America and Siberia, and the unique thing about this specimen was that there weren't any cases previously of woolly mammoth having been collected from Akutan Island.

The other interesting twist to this story was that it actually wasn't labeled -- the meat specimen we had wasn't labeled as woolly mammoth.

It was labeled as Megatherium, which is a genus of ancient ground sloth.

And so this is where the mystery began.

Megatherium was only found in South America.

They hadn't been recorded north of Peru, and other species of ancient ground sloths had been found in North America and even in Alaska, but not Megatherium.

And so there was this whole debate originally about whether was it woolly mammoth or was it Megatherium.

Was woolly mammoth kind of a cheap knock-off 'cause they couldn't get Megatherium and so they just had some woolly mammoth lying around?

Well, the dinner was pitched as something prehistoric being served.

And the man who supposedly -- There were two men involved who supposedly collected the meat.

The first was Father Rosecrans, Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, and he was known as the 'Glacial Priest.'

He was a geologist and famous explorer, and he was a professor of geology at the University of Santa Clara.

And he, along with Captain George Kosco of the U.S. Navy, supposedly found this woolly mammoth/Megatherium ancient specimen in the glacial ice of Akutan Island and shipped it back to the Explorers Club, along with a bunch of other sort of Arctic-themed meal components, which we know were true.

They had glacial ice from Juno.

They had lichen.

They had giant king crab.

They had a bunch of other interesting Arctic specimens.

So the fact that these men could've brought back a mammoth was entirely plausible.

Was there any test -- I mean, they don't leave a little sample of the meat of the dinner forever and ever in an archive somewhere.

Is there any test that we could do to figure out what was eaten?

Well, that is exactly what happened.

So, the cool part of it -- There's a couple interesting players involved.

The first was a man named Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge, and he was the organizer of the dinner at the Explorers Club, and he was a noted impresario.

He was a promoter for Mae West.

He was also a famous explorer.

And the second character involved was a man named Paul Griswold Howes, and he was the curator/director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

And, in 1951, he was on an expedition, and he wasn't able to attend the dinner, so he wrote to Wendell Phillips Dodge and said, 'Please may I have my portion of the meal?

I'd like to display it in the Bruce Museum in Greenwich.'

And Dodge answered back and said, 'Absolutely.'

He personally filled out the specimen card with the chunk of the meat preserved in ethanol and sent it to Howes at the Bruce Museum.

And on the specimen label, he wrote not 'woolly mammoth' but 'Megatherium.'

And if you look at accounts, interviews of people who attended the dinner, there was some confusion about whether it was woolly mammoth or whether it was Megatherium, giant sloth.

They were eating it anyway.

They were eating it anyway.

There were mixed accounts about how it tasted, and they weren't really sure, and so there were a couple of articles published, but one of them ended up sticking, and that was published by and it said that they ate woolly mammoth.

So for the last 60 years, that's been sort of taken as fact.

But in the collections of the Yale Peabody Museum, where I used to work as an undergraduate, we had the specimen of Megatherium meat, and I thought it was fascinating because it said this was potentially 250,000 years old, it was served at the Explorers Club dinner in 1951, and I thought it was just crazy that people would eat something that has been dead for potentially thousands of years.

Sure.

So, flash-forward to 2015.

I was back as a PhD student, studying genetics, and I was taking a class on mammalogy.

And our professor, Eric Sargis, mentioned in class that there was this specimen of sloth meat and, if anyone wanted to do the genetic analysis on it, then come and find him after class.

So I sprinted up to class.

Of course, there was no one else there [Laughing] that was interested.

But I said, 'Oh, I know about the specimen.

It's my favorite.

I want to do the project.'

And, at that time, I was doing my PhD in genetics, so I had the expertise to start.

So I teamed up with Eric Sargis -- he's an anthropologist -- and another PhD student in geology called Matt Davis.

And I ended up sequencing the DNA, and we were --

And? Drumroll, please.

Drumroll.

It was actually green sea turtle.

It was neither mammoth nor sloth.

Matt found a confession by Dodge that was in the Explorers Club journal, and it was a correspondence between Dodge and Paul Howes, where Paul was confused 'cause he said, 'I heard that it was mammoth.

I heard that it was sloth.

What is it?'

And Dodge writes back a very, very confusing, winding series of letters where he says, 'It is sloth -- it is Megatherium,' but then talks about these sloths eating pteropods, which were like ancient marine -- or, no, they're still in existence, but marine sea creatures.

And, at one point, he says, 'Could I have found, perhaps, a potion to change giant ground sloth into which is 'green sea turtle.'

So this correspondence was kind of forgotten, and even by the Explorers Club members.

So, how do the explorers feel that they were... well, hoaxed, pranked, punked?

At the time, I think they were actually relieved because the Explorers Club is a club that promotes scientific research, exploration.

In the past, it was very common for any scientist to go and sample their research specimen.

Were green sea turtles plentiful back then, or were they rare, too?

Back then, they were plentiful.

They were actually quite popular, especially among the elite.

And we know now, after the fact -- We actually obtained the menu from that 1951 dinner.

And they served green sea turtle in a soup as an appetizer, and they pitched it along with something that was prehistoric.

So it makes sense in retrospect that Dodge made this claim, he built up the dinner, and then just took some of that turtle and put it in the jar and sent it to the Bruce Museum.

All right. Jessica Glass.

Thanks for solving the mystery.

Yeah, thank you so much for having me.