Rotten meat may have been a staple of Stone Age diets

Monday, May 8th, 2023

European explorers found that indigenous peoples ate rotten meat:

From arctic tundra to tropical rainforests, native populations consumed rotten remains, either raw, fermented or cooked just enough to singe off fur and create a more chewable texture. Many groups treated maggots as a meaty bonus.


Some Indigenous communities feasted on huge decomposing beasts, including hippos that had been trapped in dug-out pits in Africa and beached whales on Australia’s coast. Hunters in those groups typically smeared themselves with the fat of the animal before gorging on greasy innards. After slicing open animals’ midsections, both adults and children climbed into massive, rotting body cavities to remove meat and fat.

Or consider that Native Americans in Missouri in the late 1800s made a prized soup from the greenish, decaying flesh of dead bison. Animal bodies were buried whole in winter and unearthed in spring after ripening enough to achieve peak tastiness.

But such accounts provide a valuable window into a way of life that existed long before Western industrialization and the war against germs went global, says anthropological archaeologist John Speth of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Intriguingly, no reports of botulism and other potentially fatal reactions to microorganisms festering in rotting meat appear in writings about Indigenous groups before the early 1900s. Instead, decayed flesh and fat represented valued and tasty parts of a healthy diet.


Many travelers such as Landor considered such eating habits to be “disgusting.” But “a gold mine of ethnohistorical accounts makes it clear that the revulsion Westerners feel toward putrid meat and maggots is not hardwired in our genome but is instead culturally learned,” Speth says.


Fermented fish heads, also known as “stinkhead,” are one popular munchy among northern groups. Chukchi herders in the Russian Far East, for instance, bury whole fish in the ground in early fall and let the bodies naturally ferment during periods of freezing and thawing. Fish heads the consistency of hard ice cream are then unearthed and eaten whole.

Speth has suspected for several decades that consumption of fermented and putrid meat, fish, fat and internal organs has a long and probably ancient history among northern Indigenous groups. Consulting mainly online sources such as Google Scholar and universities’ digital library catalogs, he found many ethnohistorical descriptions of such behavior going back to the 1500s. Putrid walrus, seals, caribou, reindeer, musk oxen, polar bears, moose, arctic hares and ptarmigans had all been fair game.


“Recognizing that eating rotten meat is possible, even without fire, highlights how easy it would have been to incorporate scavenged food into the diet long before our ancestors learned to hunt or process [meat] with stone tools,” says paleoanthropologist Jessica Thompson of Yale University.


Instead, Speth speculates, cooking’s primary value at first lay in making starchy and oily plants softer, more chewable and easily digestible. Edible plants contain carbohydrates, sugar molecules that can be converted to energy in the body. Heating over a fire converts starch in tubers and other plants to glucose, a vital energy source for the body and brain. Crushing or grinding of plants might have yielded at least some of those energy benefits to hungry hominids who lacked the ability to light fires.


Over the last few centuries, they have favored tongue, fat deposits, brisket, ribs, fatty tissue around intestines and internal organs, and marrow. Internal organs, especially adrenal glands, have provided vitamin C — nearly absent in lean muscle — that prevented anemia and other symptoms of scurvy.

Western explorers noted that the Inuit also ate chyme, the stomach contents of reindeer and other plant-eating animals. Chyme provided at least a side course of plant carbohydrates.


  1. Allen says:

    Maybe this is why the appendix wasn’t always useless.

  2. VXXC says:

    OK, what happens if we Americans eat it? Serious question.

  3. Mike-SMO says:

    I suspect it is like cheese (rotten milk, tasty). Lethal if it is the wrong bug. First to try must have been very hungry.

  4. Mike in Boston says:

    The late Robb White testifies to slightly ripened fowl also being preferred by the Brits, who after all are the indigenous people of the British Isles. In “Eating Ducks” (collected in Flotsam and Jetsam, he writes:

    You know, the British have some unusual notions about how to eat gamebirds. They like them “well hung.” My grandfather’s people came over here after the industrial revolution starved them off their cottage looms in Liverpool and they brought their peculiar epicurean notions with them and I inherited some of them… I never got to eat any jacksnipes until after my mother died. Every time I would come in with my shotgun my mother would come out hobbling and say “All I need is one of those bullnecks. You can hang them and those jacksnipes out on the porch for me. They’ll be ready in four or five days as warm as it is.”

  5. Shadeburst says:

    Cooking and “maturing” make the cellulose in meat and veggies edible; otherwise it would pass straight through the gut.

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