Thursday, December 8, 2011

Woolly Mammoths for Breakfast

Woolly Mammoths on Breakfast Radio
Sunday morning, after a fairly quiet Saturday, not my favourite time of the week, but a time for relaxation. Get the papers, have breakfast, sort out one or two things to do with the business (but nothing too taxing, it is the weekend after all). Many self-employed people find themselves working much longer hours when they work for themselves, a much longer working week than when they were employed by somebody else. One of the troubles with running your own company is that you can never switch off. Self employed people seem to be always be thinking about their business and what they should be doing to improve sales, develop new products and such like. You don't really get any time off, you can never switch off as it were, unlike when I worked a "normal" 9-5 job with a salary.
Prehistoric News "Pops Up" on the Radio
Surprising how often prehistoric animals get a mention in the media. Take for example this mornings breakfast programme on a national radio station. The host had invited listeners to text/e-mail in with their stories about food what they have kept which was well past its sell by date. A fairly mundane and trivial item for a national radio programme you might think. However, we were listening and as the interviews continued we became more interested in the broadcast conversation - it would lead to a discussion on how Woolly Mammoths - ancient, prehistoric elephants, distantly related to modern elephants, that once roamed across much of the northern hemisphere became extinct.
Frozen Mammoths...
One of radio station's listeners contacted the station recalling that their old geography teacher had regaled them with stories of Russians dining on Woolly Mammoths as they thawed out of the perma-frost in Siberia. If locals were eating de-frosted Woolly Mammoths then this would be an extreme case of food being consumed well past its sell by date. After all, the last Woolly Mammoths became extinct thousands of years ago.
I have heard stories too, many text books contain references but to the best of my knowledge I am not aware of any proven cases of people eating recently thawed Mammoths.
There are a number of stories of this nature in circulation. Many Siberian Mammoths that died in the Autumn have been preserved exceptionally well as they have been quickly frozen by the rapid onset of winter and the resulting plummeting temperatures in that part of the world. Even though the animal may have died over 20,000 years ago, the deep freeze that is Siberia has led to some remarkable states of preservation.
Woolly Mammoths once Regarded as "Giant Moles"
Natives were aware of the existence of strange creatures in the ground, but with no knowledge of palaeontology or of elephants Mammoths were thought to be giant moles that burrowed deep underground and perished instantly if they ever broke the surface. This didn't stop a brisk trade in Mammoth ivory recovered from the carcases. Local warlords and leaders did try to put a stop to this by spreading rumours that the corpses were cursed and that if you interfered with one you would have bad luck. Stories from the late 18th Century of a Tungus native who had allegedly removed a single tusk from a Mammoth corpse and within a few years he and his family and died, certainly helped protect the precious ivory.
Have People Consumed Thawed-out Mammoth Flesh
There is not much evidence of people actually consuming thawed out Mammoth, but as these animals are eroded out in spring thaws they begin to defrost and many of the corpses have been reported as having been attacked by local scavengers and dogs.
In the notes of the 1901 expedition to Siberia in search of Mammoth remains led by the eminent zoologists Otto Herz and Eugen Pfizenmayer it is claimed that they were able to remove about 130 kilogrammes of meat from the hindquarters of a de-frosting Mammoth carcase. The meat was so well-preserved that the expeditions dogs eagerly ate it, but the scientists themselves although tempted did not try it as it smelt like "a badly kept stable heavily blended with the smell of offal" as Pfizenmayer recalled.
I think you would have to be pretty desperate to attempt to eat Woolly Mammoth, our ancestors certainly hunted these creatures but they would have been eating fresh meat, not the remains of an animal preserved frozen for thousands of years.
A Number of Mammoth Species Known to Science
There are a number of Mammoth species known, the largest was the Columbian (M. columbi) of North America with males weighing up to 10 Tonnes and standing over 3.5 metres high at the shoulder. The Woolly Mammoth (M. primigenius) was slightly smaller with much denser fur, believed to be a dark brown to sandy colour. Mammoths were very symbolic to our early ancestors with many cave paintings depicting them and hunting scenes. They were certainly an important food resource for our ancestors, a single Mammoth carcase could feed a whole tribe for a considerable period and provide ivory for tools as well as furs to help keep people warm.
Woolly Mammoths are still very popular with children today "Martha the Mammoth" was a popular animal on the recent Prehistoric Park TV show and Mammoths come out quite high in surveys on the popularity of prehistoric animals. There are also a number of good quality, reasonably priced Woolly Mammoth and other Ice Age creatures about, helping children to recreate their own Ice Age adventures.
However, there are no restaurants currently offering Mammoth on the menu, best to stick to what's in the kitchen freezer rather than trying to grab a couple of steaks from a de-frosting 20,000 year old Mammoth corpse.
Everything Dinosaur is a company run by parents, teachers and real dinosaur experts. It specialises in developing educational dinosaur toys, models, clothing and games and strives to help young people learn more about science through their fascination with prehistoric animals.

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