DNA Test Reveals Explorers Club Never Ate Storied Woolly Mammoth Meat


At the Explorers Club’s 47th Annual Dinner in 1951, attendees gathered in the grand ballroom of New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel and dined on an array of sumptuous foods. According to myth, one of the delicacies was a hunk of woolly mammoth meat preserved by a glacier (actually labeled on the menu as Megatherium, an extinct giant ground sloth, but frequently reported as mammoth). Now, Yale researchers have debunked the legend by performing a DNA analysis on dinner remnants saved as a souvenir. Their conclusion? The meat was actually green sea turtle.

“I’m sure people wanted to believe it. They had no idea that many years later a PhD student would come along and figure this out with DNA sequencing techniques,” said Jessica Glass, a Yale graduate student who co-authored a study on the meat. It was published earlier this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

By all accounts, the Explorers Club dinner was a gourmet affair. Its menu boasted Pacific spider crabs with legs large enough to feed 10 people apiece, as well as bison steaks, among other offerings.

The banquet’s mischievous promoter, Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge, had sent out press notices prior to the event that the dinner would include “prehistoric meat." From there, rumors spread. Some believed that meant woolly mammoth meat, while others thought of Megatherium—the giant ground sloth. (Also on the menu? Green turtle soup.)

Explorers Club member Paul Griswold Howes of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, was unable to attend the dinner, but that didn't stop him from staking a claim on the buzzed-about menu item. He sent a request

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.

The club complied, and Howes's souvenir sat preserved in a jar as the woolly mammoth myth persisted.

Following the event, the Christian Science Monitor wrote a story on the spectacle, reporting that the "chief attraction at the smorgasbord was a morsel of 250,000-year-old hairy mammoth meat." Apparently the prehistoric beast had been found on "Woolly Cove" on Akutan Island in the Aleutians, and was shipped to New York for the dinner. 

In 2001, Howes's fist-size chunk of meat was added to the mammal collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. There, it caught the eye of two curious graduate students: Glass and Matt Davis, who received a grant from the Explorers Club to perform a DNA analysis. Their findings revealed that the meat wasn’t ancient, nor rare; it was simply a chunk of turtle that was likely fished from the dinner’s soup course. Dodge even sort of admitted to the scheme, later writing in the club's Explorer's Journal that he had found a way to change turtle into giant sloth.

Now that the mystery has been solved, who knows—maybe the Explorers Club will serve the storied specimen at their upcoming 112th Annual Dinner to bring their decades-long publicity stunt full-circle. 

Video courtesy of Yale University; images courtesy of iStock.

[h/t Associated Press]