One of the claims we see thrown around fringe literature from time to time, especially among the catastrophists, is that mammoths and mastodons were “flash frozen” in some unspeakable apocalypse that kept them carefully preserved and locked in their freshness. Although surviving wooly mammoth corpses don’t appear to be Ziploc-fresh, the story recurs every few years. For example, David Childress uses them as an example of earth-crust displacement in his Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of Africa & Arabia: “Witness woolly mammoths flash-frozen in the Arctic with buttercups in their stomachs. They were apparently flash-frozen in a sliding of the earth’s crust.” Our fringe theorists know the story most directly from Charles Hapgood, who wrote of “edible mammoths steaks” that proved the earth-crust displacement hypothesis. His claim bequeathed our frozen mammoths to fringe history.
However, the most active promoters of the myth were biblical creationists, who hoped to thereby prove that the Flood offed the mammoths. Here’s how catastrophist Donald Patten put it in 1966’s Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch, as quoted in H. L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible: “Their entombment and refrigeration have been so effective that mammoth carcasses have been thawed to feed sled dogs, both in Alaska and Siberia; in fact, mammoth steaks have even been featured on restaurant menus in Fairbanks.” The menus might have read “mammoth,” but they certainly didn’t serve it. I can remember reading about those restaurant menus in old books of strange facts when I was a kid, and the passage I just quoted from Patten above appears all but verbatim in Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods, cited to Patten.
According to the online version of the Patten text, the source is Ivan T. Sanderson, “Riddle of the Quick-Frozen Giants,” Saturday Evening Post, Jan 16, 1960, p. 82. You will remember Sanderson as the fringe writer whose claims about ancient giants launched David Childress on the path of accusing the Smithsonian of a vast conspiracy. He seems to be an unreliable source, but one who gave more than his share of bad ideas immortality. Hapgood got his information from Sanderson.
Anyway, an offshoot of this claim is the recurring story that some of these mammoths became frozen dinners for European royalty, groups of scientists, or some combination thereof.
I bring this up because of a new report that finds that the most recent of these claims was a hoax. Legend has it that in 1951 the Explorer’s Club served meat from a frozen mammoth, as you can read in this 2014 Mental Floss article that takes the story at least somewhat seriously. But a new analysis of the preserved remains of that dinner (don’t ask why anyone kept the leftovers for 65 years) determined that the food was actually turtle, which had been passed off not as mammoth but as megatherium, an extinct ground sloth. The Christian Science Monitor misunderstood what a megatherium was in 1951 and reported that the food was mammoth, causing the legend.
But this is far from the only mammoth dinner to be little more than hot air. The most popular such dinner allegedly took place shortly after the excavation of the Beresovka mammoth in Russia in 1901. Scientists were rumored to have supped lavishly on the fresh-frozen meat. However, I.P. Tolmachoff looked into the story in 1929 and found that it had been greatly exaggerated. “Although some of flesh recovered from the cadavers were ‘fibrous and marbled with fat’ and looked ‘as fresh as well-frozen beef or horsemeat,’ only dogs showed any appetite for it; ‘the stench . . . was unbearable,’” he wrote in a scholarly article. One scientist tried to taste the meat, but found himself unable to hold down the putrid flesh.
From this, a legend arose that Prof. Otto Herz, who mounted the mammoth for the Tsar’s Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, treated the imperial family to a feast of mammoth flesh, with side dishes brought from archaeological finds around the world, such as preserved grain from Egyptian tombs. While this is a lovely story of the wretched excess of the Romanoff dynasty, it is unfortunately completely untrue.
Nevertheless, the story was popular enough that it took on a life of its own, in various versions. In October 1959, Boy’s Life magazine told its young readers in an article on mammoths that they were frozen solid in blocks of ice. It quoted a college professor, identified only as Elmer, as saying “I once met a man who ate mammoth meat at a banquet of the Czar Nicholas of Russia during the first World War. How do you suppose that happened?”
I suppose it happened because people like to tell tall tales, and some none-too-critical thinkers repeated them from the better part of a century. It never ceases to amaze me how stories keep getting repeated without any fact-checking.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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