Blue Babe: Would You Eat 36,000-year-old Bison Meat?
The Alaskan Gold Rush, which began around the end of the 19th century, brought many miners and prospectors to this American state. During their mining operations, many miners have come across the frozen mummies of ancient animals. Blue Babe is the name given to a mummified Alaskan steppe bison that was discovered in 1979. One of the most remarkable features of Blue Babe is that it was found to be almost completely intact, which is quite unusual for the remains of animals which lived during Blue Babe’s time.
Scientific analyses of the carcass and the frozen soil that entombed Blue Babe have yielded a large amount of valuable data, which allowed researchers to piece together the story of the bison, in particular the last days of its life.
Studying Blue Babe. (University of Alaska )
Finding and Excavating Blue Babe
Ancient remains were often incomplete, and would be discarded by the miners, who were more interested in gold than in frozen animal remains. In 1979, a family of gold miners, Walter and Ruth Roman, and their sons, were mining near Fairbanks. Water from a hydraulic mining hose they were using melted the frozen soil Blue Babe was embedded in, thus exposing the part of the bison’s frozen remains. The miners named their find Blue Babe, in reference to the metallic blue sheen of the creature’s hide, which reminded them of Babe the Blue Ox from the American folklore of Paul Bunyan.
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Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox, concrete folk art at Trees of Mystery attraction in Klamath, south of Crescent City, California. ( Public Domain )
The miners, who were aware of the potential significance of their discovery, decided to contact the University of Alaska, and the palaeontologist Russell Dale Guthrie was sent to the scene. Guthrie identified the animal as being a steppe bison form the Ice Age, and thus was probably tens of thousands of years old. In order to avoid deterioration of the carcass, Guthrie opted to excavate immediately. This course of action, however, was not entirely possible, as the ground was still frozen, and it was close to several large ice wedges. As it was summer, the soil melted a little each day, and eventually the animal was freed, save its head and neck. Fearing that the exposed parts of the carcass would begin to decompose, Guthrie took the decision to have it severed from its head and neck. The carcass was then brought back to the university, and refrozen. Eventually, the head and neck of Blue Babe were also thawed, excavated, and stored with the rest of the animal.
Blue Babe. (University of Alaska )
36,000 Years Ago, Blue Babe Walked the Land
At the University of Alaska, scientists began to conduct analyses on Blue Babe. Radiocarbon dating of a piece of Blue Babe’s hide indicated that the bison had died 36,000 years ago. Several years ago, it was reported that the bison would be carbon-dated again, though using the latest Accelerated Mass Spectrometry, which would provide a more accurate date.
It has been suggested that Blue Babe was killed by an American lion (or several of them), an extinct subspecies of Ice Age lion that lived in North America. This is based on the scratch marks on the rear of Blue Babe, teeth punctures on its skin, as well as a piece of a lion’s tooth embedded in the animal’s neck. In addition, Blue Babe’s fur coat, teeth and horns, as well as its fat content, indicated that it died in early winter. The onset of winter, and the fact that the lions were not able to return to finish their meal due to the plummeting temperature, helped preserve Blue Babe for the future.
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This Painting of a Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) was made to illustrate one card of a set of 30 collector cards from "Tiere der Urwelt" (Animals of the Prehistoric World). From the Series III.´It is feeding on a reindeer. ( Public Domain )
Trying Ice Age Bison Meat
Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories about Blue Babe is that part of this ancient creature was cooked and consumed by the researchers who were studying it. In 1984, Guthrie and his colleagues were preparing Blue Babe for a display. A piece of the animal’s neck tissue was cut off, and the researchers decided to make a stew out of it, which they then split amongst themselves. Apparently, the meat had a strong, earthy aroma, but it was delicious. It was also remarked that though the meat was tough, it was edible.
Today, Blue Babe, or rather, a plaster model of the bison covered by its tanned and treated skin, is displayed in the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North.
Top image: Blue Babe. Source: Bernt Rotasd/ CC BY 2.0
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Available at: https://roadtrippers.com/stories/get-a-close-up-look-at-a-36-000-year-old-ice-age-bison-named-blue-babe
Selinger, G., 1986. Blue Babe, A Messenger from the Ice Age. [Online]
Available at: https://www.alaska.edu/uajourney/history-and-trivia/blue-babe-a-messenger-fro/
The University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2014. Bon Anniversaire, Blue Babe. [Online]
Available at: https://www.uaf.edu/museum/press/spotlight/blue-babe/