Science, food , nutrition

A Taste of History – mammoth meat’s date-of-expiry has passed ages ago

The real Palaeo diet

Would you eat mammoth meat?” I was asked 35 years ago after my seminar at Azabu University in Japan. “Sure”, I replied, “but mammoths have become extinct thousands of years ago.” My host paid no attention to my scepticism and instructed me instead to open the refrigerator door. And there, right before me, on a clean white plate, was an olive-brown chunk of mammoth thigh – veins, muscle strands, connective tissue…. all still clearly identifiable.

A gigantic leap in time (had I made it or had the mammoth made it?) placed me in about the same position that Cro-Magnon man, whose beautiful depictions of mammoths in the cave walls of Niaux I had admired several times while working in the Pyrenees, must have been in 8-12,000 years ago. Mammoths had been one of his favourite game animals. These huge proboscian animals had looked much like our present-day elephants, but had had shaggy fur and much bigger tusks. These adaptations in combination with their enormous size had allowed them to survive close to the edge of the Arctic ice, with their last survivors on the Siberian island of Wrangel dying out only about 3,000 years ago. The tusks of the European Woolly Mammoth could reach 5 m in length and measure just over half a metre in circumference. Tusks were useful to shake bushes free off snow and dig around for edibles. They were also a formidable weapon.

The grinding teeth in the mammoth’s mouth , however, were similar to those of modern elephants, but larger in size, and used to crunch and munch all kinds of vegetation. Mammoths grazed in herds and undertook seasonal migrations in search of food. Their biggest males must have stood at least 4 m tall. Smaller species of mammoth, even dwarfed ones, are known from fossil bones of offshore islands. From time to time the corpses of more or less intact mammoths are discovered embedded in the permafrost of the Siberian tundra or the icy wastes of North America. The flesh of these animals is edible and has been used by Siberian tribes people over the centuries (and at least once in ‘starter snacks’ at an international anthropology conference in the Soviet Union).

The piece of mammoth thigh that I referred to at the beginning of this essay was meant to provide scientists in Japan with samples for an amino acid analysis (but a piece not even the size of a fingernail would have sufficed). Instead, it gave me (and others) an opportunity to “taste history”.

And how did this history taste? It tasted as if it had been buried and forgotten for thousands of years in the frozen methane-rich mud of a Siberian swamp. In other words, this taste of history – it was awful and I carried it around in my mouth for the whole day. I kept thinking, grilled and with some garlic added and a glass of red wine to wash it all down with, it might have been a slightly better treat.

meat mammoth paleo diet food cooking

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2016.
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