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Kelsey Museum of Archaeology pres.

MAS Lecture | Rotted Meat, Scurvy, and Neanderthal Foodways

John Speth, University of Michigan

Northern tundra Northern tundra
Northern tundra
In this lecture, I discuss the importance of rotted (putrid) meat in the diet of modern hunter-gatherers throughout the northern latitudes. Putrefaction "pre-digests" meat without the need for cooking. Anaerobic bacteria rapidly colonize decomposing meat, inhibiting the germination of pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum (botulism). Bacterial fermentation also prevents fats from becoming rancid and preserves vitamin C, eliminating the threat of scurvy. Psychological studies indicate that the revulsion shown by Euro-Americans toward putrid meat is learned, not hard-wired, and emerges surprisingly late in children.

Abundant ethnohistoric evidence shows that rotted meat was not a starvation food but a prized and nutritionally vital component of forager diets in northern environments. I suggest that eating rotted meat would have been of similar importance to Eurasian Neanderthals and modern humans occupying broadly similar environments and subsisting on heavily meat-based diets. I then briefly explore the implications of these ideas for understanding the later Pleistocene archaeological and isotopic record in northern Eurasia.

This lecture is sponsored by the Michigan Archaeological Society.
To learn more about the MAS, please visit

If you are a person with a disability who requires an accommodation to attend this lecture, please contact the education office (734-647-4167) as soon as possible. We ask for advance notice as some accommodations may require more time for the University to arrange.

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