Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On Jan. 13, 1951, the exclusive Explorers Club assembled in New York for a black-tie evening, the highlight of their social calendar. The men — the club did not admit women until 1981 — were unified by their passion for science and exploration. Club membership has included such luminaries as Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Teddy Roosevelt, Roald Amundsen, Robert E. Peary, Matthew Henson, Neil Armstrong and John Glenn.
The annual event has historically featured speeches, presentations, and exhibits from expeditions conducted across the globe, in many ways the fanciest version of show-and-tell imaginable. Each night climaxed with a multicourse exotic meal, often made from specimens collected by the members themselves. Past courses include bovine penis, goat eyeballs and maggot-covered fruit. The dinners frequently garner news coverage, but the 1951 edition was its peak. As the Christian Science Monitor reported, the “chief attraction at the smorgasbord was a morsel of 250,000-year-old hairy mammoth meat” from Alaska.
Also on the menu were massive crab legs from Japanese spider crabs, bison burgers, ice cream and cheese straws. The decorations included a “bit of the Alaskan-Aleutian tundra, with grass, weeds, shore debris and shrubs ... sprinkled over all was volcanic dust from the great Veniaminof Volcano.” Per the newspaper, Explorers Club member Father Bernard Hubbard obtained the mammoth, still frozen, from “Woolly Cave” on Akutan Island. Known as the “Glacier Priest,” Hubbard was a famed Jesuit documentary filmmaker, geologist, volcanologist and lecturer best known for his overwhelming fascination with Alaska’s varied geography.
Woolly mammoth bodies are regularly discovered in the far north, partially preserved by colder climates. In 1901, zoologist Otto Herz led a team into remote Siberia, where they disassembled a mammoth frozen into a cliff above the Berezovka River. While the stench was memorable, parts of the animal appeared almost fresh, including bits of marbled flesh that Herz visually compared to beef. He wrote, “We wondered for some time whether we should not taste it, but no one would venture to take it into his mouth.” Instead, his team fed portions to their dogs, which survived and perhaps even enjoyed the experience.
In 2011, controversial Chinese paleontologist Lida Xing cooked and ate part of another mammoth found in Siberia. He broadcast the meal live online, concluding that it “tasted bad, weird and coarse, like soil.” In 2012, evolutionary genomics professor Love Dalén tried a small bite of a recovered baby mammoth. He said, “The mammoth meat tasted like what I would imagine putrefied beef jerky, with no salt or spices, would taste like.”
The last mammoths lived in Arctic areas near or in what is now Alaska. Separated from the mainland by rising sea levels, some mammoths survived on Russia’s Wrangel Island until just 4,000 years ago. A herd of mammoths on Alaska’s St. Paul Island died off around 5,600 years ago. To put that fact in perspective, woolly mammoths were alive when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built in Egypt.
So, it was somewhat believable that a group of prestigious, wealthy and connected men in 1951 could have obtained a more or less edible sample of mammoth flesh. But did they really eat mammoth hors d’oeuvres that night? Contrary to the Christian Science Monitor and other published accounts, some guests believed they had instead consumed bits of Megatherium, an extinct giant ground sloth far rarer than mammoths. And in fact, a preserved sample of the meat was labeled as Megatherium. Yet, as decades passed, the legend of mammoth treats persisted, partly due to the more intriguing idea of mammoth versus sloth meat. One of those two options simply sounds more appealing.
The meat sample, gifted to a club member unable to attend the meal, was stored for years at the Bruce Museum of Greenwich, Connecticut. In 2001, the sample was transferred to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where it eventually attracted the attention of curious researchers. In 2016, they published their findings. Within the Explorers Club archives, they discovered evidence that the meat was actually green sea turtle, which was confirmed by DNA testing on the enduring sample.
There is no evidence that Hubbard discovered a woolly mammoth on Akutan, which would have been newsworthy all by itself. The promoter for the 1951 dinner, Wendell Phillips Dodge, was something of a colorful character. He had previously been the agent for film star Mae West. Before the dinner, he released press notices that the club dinner would include “prehistoric meat.” Shortly after the dinner, he released another statement about a “potion” that could turn green sea turtle meat into giant sloth meat. Most observers missed the point of the latter release.
At best, the story of a woolly mammoth meal was promotion gone awry. At worst, it was a simple, harmless hoax. Matt Davis, who co-authored the revelatory study, stated, “To me, this was a joke that no one got. It’s like a Halloween party where you put your hand in spaghetti, but they tell you it’s brains. In this case, everyone actually believed it.”
The 1951 Explorers Club dinner was not the only mammoth-related hoax in far north history. In 1901, the San Francisco Call ran a story on events in Dawson, the heart of the Klondike gold country. The anonymous author stated, “Up on the Forks a big mastodon was killed after he had demolished a hotel and several houses, tossed dogs and horses into the air and caused men to run for their lives. He was at last killed by an electric wire which he tried to pull down. His skin alone weighed 1100 pounds.”
There was, of course, no living mastodon running around the Yukon. The same article also stated, “A lady froze to the sidewalk last week while talking to a friend. A waterman had spilled some water on the walk, and she stood on it, her shoes freezing tight to the ground. When she started to go, she could not move and fainted. Some men secured an ax and cut her loose. Since that time no one is allowed to walk on the street on such a cold day.” Despite the obvious tongue-in-cheek tone, the article was carried across the country and, within a couple of months, even appeared in British newspapers. People have long believed the most unlikely legends about the north.
To the dismay of storytellers, the Explorers Club did not eat mammoth meat in 1951. Mammoth samples were then exceedingly difficult and costly to obtain, apart from the disgusting aspects of eating something thousands of years old. In other words, a full mammoth meal was extremely unlikely, if not truly impossible.
Science might offer an alternative. For the last few years, Paleo, a Belgian startup, has been designing a tastier plant-based burger by adding mammoth DNA. In 2023, Vow, an Australian cultured meat startup, produced a mammoth meatball that they gifted to the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, a science museum in the Netherlands. As with the 1951 Explorers Club dinner, the mammoth meatball is a publicity stunt meant to draw attention to the potential of cultured meat to replace animal agriculture. The meatball is also not exactly all mammoth, more like cultured lamb with some added mammoth DNA. Informed by his previous sample, Love Dalén declared, “Without doubt, I would love to try this! It cannot possibly taste worse than real mammoth meat.”
“Dawson Rears a Munchausen.” San Francisco Call, March 18, 1901, 3.
Glass, Jessica R., Matt Davis, Timothy J. Walsh, Eric J. Sargis, and Adalgisa Caccone. “Was Frozen Mammoth or Giant Ground Sloth Served for Dinner at the Explorer’s Club?” PLOS One 11, no. 2 (2016): 1-12.
Hunt, Katie. “Meatballs Made with Mammoth DNA Created by Australian Food Startup.” CNN, March 28, 2023.
Nichols, Herbert B. “Mammoth Appetites Explore a . . . Mammoth.” Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 1951, 3.
Shelton, Jim. “Yale Put Prehistoric Mystery Meat to the Test (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Woolly Mammoth OR Giant Ground Sloth.” YaleNews, February 3, 2016.
Stone, Richard. Mammoth: The Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001.