Saturday, February 06, 2016

A zombie mammoth bites the dust

A few years back, I mentioned the mammoth book actually was a byproduct of my love of fringe theories. A lo-o-ong time ago, when I was a teenager, I noticed that each fringe genre recycled a standard set of evidences that were proof positive of each writer's preferred theory. For geological catastrophists, frozen mammoths were right at the top of the list. Working in bookstores in my late twenties and early thirties, I played a game of find-the-mammoth with each new catastrophist book. Very few failed. An important part of the theory was the idea that mammoths had been frozen so fast that its meat was still fresh and delicious tasting. This week, one of those stories about mammoth meat was decisively debunked--not that that will make it go away.

In the 1690s, the literate classes of Western Europe became aware of ivory from a mysterious Siberian creature called mamant or mammoth. The natives said it was never seen alive. They belived it lived underground and died when it breathed surface air by accidentally tunneling out of its subterranean home, usually on river banks. They believed it was a currently living animal because the meat was fresh enough for their dogs to eat. None of these stories said that they ate the meat. And, dogs will eat their own shit, so that's not the best recommendation for the palatability of the meat. This detail, the freshness of the meat, was one of the things that made the mammoth so fascinating, more than any other extinct animal, and kept attention focused on it for the next century.

Once the mammoth was recognized, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a unique, extinct species, native to the North, more focus was placed on just how it came to be frozen. During the previous century, this was not a particularly difficult question. The mammoth was an elephant. During the biblical Deluge, they drowned and their corpses were washed north. When the waters receded, the now Arctic elephants rapidly froze. This theory fell into disfavor as the general literary consensus tipped toward viewing the Deluge as a metaphor or local event in the Middle East. On the geological side, the concept of uniformitarianism, that major changes happen very slowly, in small increments, also denied the idea of a sudden, global flood. This was immediately followed by the discovery of the ice ages. A slow warming and cooling world provided many opportunities for mammoths to become frozen.

Back to the mammoth. By 1850, only fourteen mammoths with some soft tissue attached had been reported since 1692, only four were supposed to have been relatively complete, and only one had been recovered. This made it easy to believe that each frozen mammoth was due to a rare and unique accident. Today, after 350 years, only seventy-five mammoths with soft tissue have been reported and only fourteen have been relatively complete. Due to global communication, the end of the Cold War, a rapid erosion of of local superstitions, and an appreciation of the high monetary value of mammoth carcasses, a third of those complete carcasses were reported and all of them recovered in the last ten years.

But, John, you may be asking (go ahead, ask), when did the mammoth feast enter the mythology? That's a very good question. I commend you on your persip... perisap... smartness. As I mentioned, the earliest reports of mammoth meat only mention dogs eating it. Dogs eating the meat are mentioned again a couple times in the nineteenth century. But, by the dawn of the twentieth century, I can't find a single account of humans eating it, let alone it being the main course of a great feast.

Back to catastophism. Frozen mammoths are now a staple of catastrophist theories. Frozen mammoths are among the usual suspects that catastrophists trot out to prove that Atlantis was real, the Earth’s axis can suddenly change location, a planet-sized comet caused the plagues of Egypt, some cosmological event dumped millions of cubic miles of ice on the earth, or that the Deluge was real. When any new catastrophist theory is proposed, frozen mammoths cannot be far behind. The mammoth most often cited, though often anonymously cited and turned into a plural, is the mammoth discovered on the Beresovka River in 1900.

This mammoth was only the second complete mammoth to be recovered. It was found halfway down a high bluff over the Beresovka River in northeastern Siberia. Its claims to fame are based on the date of its discovery and its high degree of preservation. It was only the second relatively complete mammoth recovered; the first was a century earlier. It was better documented than the first. Mikhail Adams, who recovered the first mammoth in 1806, was a botanist who quickly lost interest in it. The main documentation of it was written by the person who reconstructed the skeleton, Wilhelm Tilesius, who hated Adams. By contrast, the Beresovka mammoth was recovered by Otto Herz and Eugene Pfitzenmayer, who both were interested in the mammoth itself and respected each other. Finally, they wrote during a time when the interested audience for information about such discoveries was magnitudes larger than the audience for the Adams mammoth. They not only wrote several scientific articles on the discovery, the samples they brought back allowed other scientists to write papers on it. Pfitzenmayer even wrote a popular book on mammoths. Quite simply, the world knew more about this mammoth than any discovered before then and any since until Dima in 1977.

From here, the details of this mammoth move into catastophist literature following two paths. The first is because of the high quality of the remains themselves. The flesh and even parts of the organs were recognizably intact. Plant tissues from its last meal were still in its mouth and identifiable nearly a century before DNA sequencing. All of these details have led catastrophists to believe the mammoth was frozen suddenly and completely. An entire industry has grown up around this belief. Someday, I'll go over all the details of that, but, today, let's go over the small aspect of that belief that was debunked this week.

Catastrophism means suddenness. The significance of the Beresovka mammoth to catastophists is the idea that the perfection of its preservation was due to its being frozen in a few hours--faster than any known means of freezing. One line of thought using the Beresovka mammoth was based on the supposedly non-arctic food found in its unflossed mouth. The other is based on the quality of its meat. Twice now I've mentioned that several recorded accounts, before 1901, mention dogs eating the meat, but none mention humans eating it. So, did Herz or Pfitzenmayer make this claim about their mammoth? No, they did not.

The origin appears to have come from Herz' comment that the mammoth's flesh "looks as fresh as well-frozen beef or horse meat." This has been taken to mean it tasted like well-frozen beef or horse meat. It did not. Pfitzenmayer wrote that they could smell it a mile away and that they initially could only work on excavating it for a few minutes before fleeing to get some fresh air. Though it's not mentioned in either of their initial accounts. One of them did taste the meat.* One night, toward the end of their work, they got drunk and began daring the other to eat come of the meat. The dogs had shown that it wasn't fatal to eat (see dogs and shit, above). Finally, fortified with a lot of vodka and pepper, one of them was able to chew up a chunk of mammoth, but not swallow it.

Before I adjudge this story to be the origin of all mammoth feast stories, I want to suggest the possibility of an undocumented oral tradition that also fed into it. I'm an Alaskan. Many old, white Alaskans have a grandfather, know someone who had a grandfather, or whose grandfather knew someone who regularly ate frozen mammoth. The Seattle catastophist Donald Patton wrote that "mammoth steaks have even been featured on restaurant menus in Fairbanks." None of these stories has been documented as true. All of these stories date back to the gold rush days. None of the Russians before then make that claim, none of the Anglo-white guys since then make that claim, and I've never met an Alaskan native that makes that claim. My opinion is that all of these stories are based on sourdoughs (old white Alaskans) BSing cheechakos (newcomers).

And now, after many digressions and distractions, I've finally arrived at the great mammoth feast. In 1920, Martin Gardner published A Journey to the Earth's Interior, Or Have the Poles Really Been Discovered? His book is the most mature development of the hollow earth theory. The central idea of this theory is that the surface of the earth is a bubble with an empty space inside. The earliest western development of this idea was by Edmond Halley of comet fame. Various later versions developed ideas of what was inside. Gardner watched the many attempts during his life to reach the poles and decided it was not possible because there were no poles. When explorers reached a certain high latitude, they entered a hole that led to the interior world. Gravity held people against the under side of the bubble and a tiny sun balanced at the center made life possible there. When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his Pellucidar based on the same idea, Gardner wrote to him asking if he had anything to do with the books. I don't know if Burroughs answered.

Gardner, for once, did not need the biblical flood or any other type of catastrophe to put frozen mammoths in the Arctic. Like most catastrophists, he believed that mammoths were normal tropical elephants whose appearance in the Arctic needed explanation. His solution was that they lived in the eternal tropics of the inner world. Occasionally, however, they would fall into rivers or off the northern coast, drown, have their bodies carried through the polar hole, be deposited on the Siberian coast, buried, and frozen there before they could decompose--obviously.

Gardner dedicated an entire chapter to the mammoth and within that chapter, a subtitled section to the mammoth feast. Gardner specifically says it was Herz who held a banquet with meat from the Berezovka mammoth "and he asked scientists in other parts of the world to contribute other ancient foods--such as corn dug up from the ruins of Egyptian cities." Later versions of the story have added that Tsar Nicholas II was the guest of honor. Other versions of the feast removed Herz from the story and made Guillaume Apollinaire, the Italian/French poet, the guest of honor. Later, when asked about the feast, Gardner would only vaguely say, it was in all the papers, look it up yourselves.

This, Klondike tall tales, and other rumors established the popular legend that, at some time, there had been a feast or dinner of mammoth steaks. Thirty years later, a newer version appeared: at some point, soon after WWII, the Explorer's Club of New York featured mammoth steaks on the menu of its annual dinner. Oddly, this story, with its exactness, has not been repeated as often as Gardner's vague story. But there is some truth to this story, the Explorer's Club is a real organization, it is in New York, and it has a fancy dinner with exotic fare every year. Despite this story having so many verifiable points, I have never come across a catastrophist who looked onto it enough to verify the fact of the mammoth steaks. But, academic rigor has never been a feature of fringe thought; recycling is their primary feature. After sixty-five years, someone has finally looked into this factoid.

Here is the story as reconstructed by Jessica R. Glass, Matt Davis, Timothy J. Walsh, Eric J. Sargis, and Adalgisa Caccone in an article in PLOS One. The famous menu was the from the 1951 annual Explorers Club dinner, held in January that year. The source of the popularization of the story is an article in The Christian Science Monitor that appeared several days later. The first point they make completely kills the legend. The menu didn't say mammoth; it said Megatherium, which is an extinct species of South American giant ground sloth that did not live in the far north. Although this might disappoint catastrophists, in its way, it is much more interesting. Megatherium remains are far rarer than mammoths and, as it is not an Arctic species, well preserved soft tissue would have been insanely rare. If only there was some way to prove that.

There is. Paul Griswold Howes, the curator of the Bruce Museum missed the dinner. Wendell Phillips Dodge, the chairman of the club, was good enough to save a piece of the Megatherium for Howes. Rather than eat the tasty bit, Howes preserved it and added it to the museum's collections. Dodge was rather--well--dodgy about the origin of the meat. Originally, he claimed it came from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. If true, this would have extended the range of the Megatherium by over 10,000 miles. He is also reported to have said he had discovered a formula by which he could convert sea turtle meat into giant sloth meat. I think we can assume that formula included a generous helping of bullshit.

Spoiler: It's not mammoth meat (source)

Glass et al. have the tools to go beyond merely determining that the meat was not mammoth. They were able to determine what it really was. All they needed was the sample that Howes stored at the Bruce Museum. Howes carefully labeled the sample so it wasn't difficult to find. The meat had been cooked and stored in isopropyl alcohol, but this didn't prevent them from extracting DNA for identification. Unlike forensic crime dramas, they weren't able to determine that it was a near-sighted, left-handed, yellow sloth from a bad part of Davenport, Iowa. However, they were able to determine that it wasn't a mammoth or any kind of sloth. It was, in fact, a green sea turtle of a sub-species native to the Pacific Ocean. They weren't able to narrow it down further than that. The green sea turtle is now an endangered species. In those days it was a favored species for making turtle soup, a major factor in its becoming endangered.

Although it's easy to dismiss the mammoth feast as so much fringe silliness, it has had a very real effect on how the public perceives mammoths. The idea that there is almost perfect mammoth tissue available in the Siberian tundra is one of the drivers of the idea that each new discovery might provide the necessary genetic material to clone a mammoth. Hundreds of frozen mammals have been in the northern tundra. None of them have provided decent DNA for cloning.

This isn't the end of the story. In 1979 a prospector near Fairbanks uncovered the frozen remains of a steppe bison. Rather than try to blast the thing clear, he reported it to the University of Alaska and R. Dale Guthrie was able to conduct a proper excavation of it. It is one of the best preserved Pleistocene mammals ever recovered. It was brought to the university and, along with being properly examined, the main parts of the body were prepared for display in the museum. The chief taxidermist, Erick Grandqvist, saved a piece of meat from the Bison's neck. When his work was done, he Guthrie, and visiting paleontologist, Björn Kurtén made a stew out of it. The meat was tough, but edible.

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