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IS IT THE GOOD TURTLE SOUP OR MERELY THE SLOTH?

A WONDERFUL HOAX was played on members of New York City’s exclusive Explorer’s Club back in 1951. To paraphrase Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love,” a legendary meal at the club wasn’t mammoth, it wasn’t ancient sloth. Indeed, science has shown it was turtle.

As I enjoy reminding people, science is never over.

explorersclub

The background: The Explorers Club was founded in New York City in 1904. Its members have included Robert Peary (thought first to the North Pole, 1909), Roald Amundsen (South Pole, 1911), Sir Edmund Hillary (Mount Everest, 1953) and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (the Moon, 1969).

Asides: Women, regardless of accomplishment, were not admitted to The Explorers Club until 1981. And, while I’m at it, I note that Dorothy Rodham showed remarkable clairvoyance in honoring Sir Edmund’s two L’s in choosing her daughter’s name. The climber’s first fame of any sort came in 1948, when he was one of a team scaling his native New Zealand’s highest peak. Hillary Diane Rodham was born October 26, 1947.

Indeed, first recounted in 1995, the naming tale was transformed during Hillary Clinton’s 2006 campaign into “a sweet family story her mother shared.”

But onto the principal hoax of this item: The Reverend Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, S.J., was an arctic explorer known as The Glacier Priest. He returned from one of his Alaskan expeditions with a piece of ancient meat said to be hacked from a frozen Megatherium, a giant ground sloth.

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The Reverend Bernard Rosecrans Hubbard, S.J., 1888 – 1962, arctic explorer known as The Glacier Priest. This and following images from “Was Frozen Mammoth or Giant Ground Sloth Served for Dinner at The Explorers Club?” by Jessica R. Glass et al.

The giant ground sloth, now extinct, was thought to be a South American creature. Thus, archeological evidence for one in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands was noteworthy. What’s more, the quick-frozen nature of its remains gave credence to catastrophism, as opposed to gradualism, as an evolutionary concept.

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Megatherium existing so far north of its typical habitat was in itself an archeological find.

In any case, at 47th Annual Dinner of The Explorers Club on January 13, 1951, each member’s plate included a sliver of what the menu identified as Megatherium. News of this ancient delicacy got around and, in reporting the dinner on January 17, 1951, The Christian Science Monitor called it mammoth, an equally extinct, albeit better known, beast.

It’s unlikely that the geographical question of Megatherium habitat versus that of Mammuthus primigenius was part of the article. However, the mammoth story stuck. Until February 4, 2016, that is, when The Christian Science Monitor published a correction: “In 1951, we reported that members of the Explorers Club dined on a 250,000-year-old extinct mammoth. Science has proven us wrong.”

The science in this matter is “Was Frozen Mammoth or Giant Ground Sloth Served for Dinner at The Explorers Club?” by Jessica R. Glass et al, Yale University and the Bruce Museum. The paper, published February 3, 2016, in the research journal Plos One, gives details of DNA analysis performed on a sample of the club’s leftover. This cooked morsel had been preserved in ethanol and is part of the collection at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.

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A preserved sample of cooked meat originally served at the 1951 Explorers Club Annual Dinner, January 13, 1951.

To assess the meat’s origin, the researchers sequenced a fragment of the sample’s mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene (widely used to resolve divergences of species). As noted in the paper’s abstract, “Our results indicate that the meat was not mammoth or Megatherium but green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas).”

It’s likely the meat came from the sea turtle soup served at the same meal. In fact, back in 1951 the hoax was given away, albeit subtly, by Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge.

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Wendell Phillips Dodge, 1883 – 1976, circumnavigator, theater impresario, Explorers Club member, in charge of planning its 1951 Annual Dinner.

It was Dodge who arranged the menu, including the bogus sloth. A few days after the dinner, Dodge hinted in the club’s Explorers Journal that he may have discovered a potion capable of changing, say, Indian Ocean turtle into giant sloth.

However, it’s difficult to keep a good story—if not an ancient meal—down. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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