Dan Fisher and the art of elephant preservation

2 minute read

The magazine of the College of Literature, Science and Arts at the University of Michigan has a nice piece profiling Dan Fisher: “The dead elephant in the room”. Fisher is a paleontologist well-known for his work understanding the biology of mammoths and mastodons. One thing the article doesn’t mention is his part in analyzing the famous “baby mammoth” from Siberia several years ago.

This article by Elizabeth Wason is fun because it focuses on a human-centered aspect of proboscidean biology, their possible use as food by prehistoric people. The article begins with a sketch of Fisher faced with a unique problem: excavating the carcass of a zoo elephant from a landfill. Despite resting amid the junk of Toledo for more than two decades, the elephant’s flesh had not decayed – indeed, it remained surprisingly resistant to decomposition after three years after Fisher dismembered the carcass and buried the pieces under a mountain of manure. If that sounds like the beginning of a research project, well, you’re thinking like a paleontologist!

Mammoth skull
Photo Credit: scottjlowe via Compfight cc

The elephant gave a clue that ancient humans might have found a way to preserve edible meat, allowing them to exploit larger animals than they could profitably consume in a short time on the landscape. So Fisher started tossing heads into frozen ponds.

By this point, Fisher has gathered enough experience and evidence to understand why. The cheese-like odor of the meat suggested that lactobacilli, the bacteria responsible for creating cheese and yogurt, readily colonized the dead animals, at least under acidic conditions. Lactobacilli release lactic acid as they metabolize, which probably created an environment that—in tandem with the acidic, low-oxygen conditions of the water—naturally pickled the meat and prevented the growth of putrefying bacteria. But cold water temperatures were not necessary to preserve the meats effectively; the lactobacilli kept meat from spoiling through the spring thaw and even into the summer.
All of this means that that old, waterlogged horsemeat should be okay to eat, right?
Fisher, of course, knows how to find out.

This idea might seem off-the-wall, but it has some basis from the archaeological perspective. John Speth at Michigan has long traced the importance of brain consumption as a source of dietary fat. Some Neandertal-era sites show a pattern that might be consistent with preserving the heads of large herbivores in frozen ponds. Mammoth heads so far are not among them, but mammoth consumption was important for some Neandertals and for later people of Upper Paleolithic times in Europe.

Meanwhile, if you’re a foodie, Lactobacillus is commonly used in classic charcuterie as a way of preserving and flavoring meat.

Some charcuterie
Photo Credit: ChefMattRock via Compfight cc

In case you’re skeptical of pond-preserved mammoth heads…