The 65-Year-Old Tale of Mystery Meat Believed to Come From a Woolly Mammoth

A 65-year-old mystery surrounding the origin of some meat—believed to be the flesh of a mammoth or giant sloth—has once and for all been solved.
February 5, 2016, 8:00pm
Photo via Flickr user splorp

A 65-year-old mystery surrounding the origin of some meat—believed to be the flesh of a mammoth or giant sloth—has once and for all been solved. And the revelation of the meat's true identify just leaves us with more questions.

The Explorers Club, founded in 1904, is a club dedicated to field research and exploration, and it's famous for its annual dinners. The 1951 iteration of that dinner was, by all accounts, the meal of a lifetime. In fact, it was so memorable, it's said to have inspired the 1990 film The Freshman. The reason behind the gathering's infamy? That would have to be the main course. Members of the 111-year-old club were said to have feasted on the flesh of a prehistoric woolly mammoth, trapped in a glacier and preserved from the ravages of time. Or at least they believed that is what they ate.

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Despite the night's menu stating that members would be feasting upon something called Megatherium, an elephant-sized type of giant sloth, Yale University says one Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge had at the time mailed out notices to the members stating that the meal would feature "prehistoric meat." Furthermore, an article in in the Christian Science Monitor, written by a club member shortly after the dinner, said the club members dined on mammoth.

So what did they eat at the 1951 dinner at the Explorers Club? Mammoth? Giant sloth?

Thanks to a group of Yale PhD students, we now know that the main course at the famous dinner was in fact nothing more than green sea turtle, or Chelonia mydas.

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It's kind of a letdown, but just this Wednesday, the aforementioned group of researchers from Yale published the results of DNA analysis on a small piece of meat preserved from the meal. As luck would have it, one club member, Paul Griswold Howes, was unable to make the 1951 dinner. He was the curator-director at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, and when he learned he couldn't attend the meal, he requested a piece of the prehistoric meat be sent to him so that he could exhibit it at his museum. A sample, labeled Megatherium, was put in ethanol and eventually was passed down to the Peabody Museum, where the Yale student found it.

So the legend of the notorious Explorers Club dinner ends here. Turtle is no mammoth or sloth, but at least we can finally put the looming question of what the club members ate on that fateful night in 1951 to rest.