The meat eaten at a lavish New York City Explorers Club dinner in 1951 – which at one point was thought to have been woolly mammoth – was nothing more than modern-day sea turtle, researchers revealed Wednesday.
Yale researchers used DNA analysis on the surviving bits of meat and published their findings in a journal. The meat was neither woolly mammoth nor giant sloth, as it was also once claimed to be.
"I'm sure people wanted to believe it. They had no idea that many years later, a Ph.D. student would come along and figure this out with DNA sequencing techniques," said Jessica Glass, a Yale graduate student and co-lead author of the study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
The Explorers Club gala, held in the grand ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel, promised a menu of Pacific spider crabs, green turtle soup, bison steaks and meat from an extinct giant sloth, according to Adalgisa Caccone, a senior research scientist and stud y co-author.
The tale about mammoth being on the menu grew out of a Christian Science Monitor story that ran days after the January 1951 event, according to the Associated Press. It reported that the “chief attraction at the smorgasbord was a morsel of 250,000-year-old hairy mammoth meat.”
According to Yale, the banquet’s promoter, Commander Wendell Phillips Dodge sent out press releases that said the dinner would feature “prehistoric meat.”
An Explorers Club member, Paul Griswold Howes of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, was unable to attend the dinner but requested a piece of the meat be sent to him. Although the sample was labeled as "Megatherium," or giant sloth, the myth about the woolly mammoth persisted over the decades.
The specimen remained at the Bruce Museum until 2001, when it became part of the mammal collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut.
In 2014, Glass and another student, Matt Davis, were curious about the specimen and commenced a DNA analysis. The work was funded by a grant from the Explorers Club.
They extracted DNA, and the test results matched the genetic profile for green sea turtle.
"We are pleased with the results of Yale's analysis," said Will Roseman, executive director of the Explorers Club, an organization of conservationists, environmentalists and others devoted to protecting the earth.
"The mindset 65 years ago and today has dramatically changed and what was obviously a unique event decades ago, has given way to a determined effort to introduce people to the foods that can sustain mankind well into the future."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.