Flash-Frozen Mammoths and Their Buttercups: Yet Another Case of Repetition and Recycling of Bad Data
I wasn’t planning on doing more on frozen mammoths after yesterday’s discussion of dining on them, but I found myself increasingly intrigued by the fact that so many fringe history claims for flash-frozen mammoths and eating mammoth steaks trace back to a single 1960 article by Ivan T. Sanderson in the Saturday Evening Post. He was not the first to report the claims (having apparently learned of them from Immanuel Velikovsky, according to secondary sources), but his piece directly or indirectly bequeathed the story to biblical creationists like Donald Patten (who claimed Alaskan restaurants served mammoth in the twentieth century), Charles Hapgood (a close friend of Sanderson’s), David Childress, Graham Hancock, and a host of others. So I went to the library to get a copy to find out exactly what Sanderson said.
Sometimes I wish that most of the innovations in bizarre claims weren’t made so long ago that everyone involved is now dead. Sanderson starts his article by saying that frozen food companies were intrigued by his inquiries into how to flash-freeze an elephant and wanted to experiment with it! I’d have loved to talk to one of those frozen food executives to inquire as to exactly how they thought it possible or why they would even try such a thing. Anyway, Sanderson says he began his inquiry because he (wrongly) believed that wooly mammoths had been flavor-sealed in Arctic ice: “The reason for my question is simply that we already have lots of frozen elephants; the flesh of some of them has retained its full flavor, and I want to know how the job was done.” He cites the notorious Beresovka mammoth as one such toothsome delight, mistaking the explorers’ dogs’ lack of gustatory discrimination for proof that the flesh was fresh.
Sanderson also asserted that the mammoth had been frozen so quickly that its last meal of buttercups were still freshly in bloom in its mouth. “Upon the [tongue] and between the teeth, were portions of the animal’s last meal, which for some incomprehensible reason it had not had time to swallow.” This one fact gave rise to a 56 years of speculation about “instant” freezing of the mammoths in some catastrophist disaster. The scientist who studied the mammoth in situ, Dr. Otto Herz, had written that “more [food] is found on the tongue and between the teeth,” and he assumed that the mammoth died while he was eating, tumbling off a cliff or down a slope to his death. He wrote that the mammoth was not flash-frozen, but rather likely died in a mud pit that froze over shortly after the animal’s death and became buried under layers of dirt. The decrepit state of the flesh reported by the explorers is more than enough to refute Sanderson’s misimpression that the mammoth was fresh enough to eat.
It’s interesting that the report of finding the remains of buttercups in the mammoth’s stomach gradually morphed under catastrophist and creationist influence into something it was never intended to be. Modern writers routinely claim that the mammoth died instantly with “buttercups in its mouth,” or some variation thereof. Herz had reported that there was the remains of food in the animal’s mouth, and later on, in 1905, this was more specifically detailed by A. V. Borodin, who did not find flash-frozen salad but rather reported that bits of food were stuck between the animal’s teeth. By 1912, there was already the beginning of a suggestion of flash-freezing, which the scientist J. P. Felix gave in his Das Mammuth von Borna: “On uncovering the skull a portion of the animal’s food was found in the form of a wad lying between the upper and lower teeth. Its death, therefore, must have been so sudden that it did not have time to swallow this food” (trans. Henry Fairfield Osborn). Felix didn’t mean that the mammoth had frozen at the moment of death, but it was easy enough to read it that way. The stomach contents, according to an English-language account published in 1925, included several species of grass, sedges, mint, legume pods, wild poppies, and “seeds of the northern butter daisy (Ranunculus).” Somehow the butter daisy seeds morphed into flash-frozen buttercups still in bloom! This appears to be due to some phrasing in a report written by E. V. Pfizenmayer in August 1939 called “Les mammouths de Siberie,” which I have not read but which is cited frequently as the source for the buttercup claim. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, what was actually found was pollen from the buttercups, both between the teeth and in the stomach.
For those who care, Felix said that the exact species was Ranunculus acer L. var. borealis, the common buttercup.
Thus, V. Paul Flint, the creationist, wrote in 1988: “Little flowering buttercups, tender sedges and grasses exclusively were found in the stomach of the Beresovka mammoth.” One creationist ventured that the mammoth froze in half an hour or less on the basis of this evidence. Such claims drew on a dispute in the Russian literature of the early 1900s in which different groups of scientists argued about the season of the mammoth’s death, with some arguing for July due to immature pollen and others for fall based on mature vegetables.
Sanderson claimed that the stomach contents froze so rapidly that decomposition did not occur, indicating temperatures dropping from 60 above to 150 below zero Fahrenheit or colder instantly, due, he thought, to volcanic activity. However, he had misunderstood the scientific literature and mistook the list of grasses and plants for the leaves of these. The scientists identified the plants by their seeds, which were preserved, not their leaves, which had decayed into an unidentifiable mass.
But I was terribly disappointed to find that the claim that Fairbanks, Alaska, had mammoth steaks on restaurant menus did not appear in Sanderson’s article. Donald Patten’s only citation on the page of Biblical Flood and the Ice Epoch (1966) where the claim appears pointed to Sanderson’s article, so I had expected to find it there. Did Patten just make the claim up? I think he probably was repeating secondhand testimony of something misunderstood. Fairbanks, Alaska, was indeed involved with mammoth flesh about two decades before Patten wrote, when excavators uncovered several specimens of mammoth on which the flesh still clung between the 1930s and 1950s. The most famous of these was the mummified mammoth Otto Geist found in 1948. This activity created great interest at the time, and in July 1944 Harper’s magazine carried a report by Frank C. Hibben that evoked the stench of “thousands of tons of rotting mammoth meat” newly thawed and the desire of those who encountered it to taste the black and rotting flesh: “Nothing would do but that we taste a piece of almost black, frozen mammoth meat.” This may be the origin of Patten’s claim, or else restaurants celebrated the local mammoths with meals named for them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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