Saturday, January 9, 2010

The First Meat

A great story was recently published about the oldest ever walking animal footprints. I'm a big fan of trace fossils (footprints, tracks, trails, etc., that preserve the activity of ancient animals). It's an important find because these tracks are older than the earliest body fossils (actual remains) of land-living animals. They are also important because these tracks occur in marine sediments, even though for a long time paleontologists have thought that the fish-to-land animal transition took place first in freshwater settings, possibly low-lying swamps (of course, this transition could have happened multiple times).

But the reports thus far have missed out on the most


important part of the story: this was the first-ever MEAT. When I say meat, I exclude seafood, in the Catholic tradition (even though, technically, fish are made of the same tissues as land animals). Still, we are talking about the animals that may have eventually led to chicken, steak, and pork chops. And that begs the question, what did these things taste like?

This is a surprisingly tough question to answer, because at least in the West, we don't regularly consume any animals like these. It would have been amphibian-like in its basic biology (so we could think frog),

Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus).Saltwater Crocodile

but modern amphibians are almost exclusively freshwater, and this animal lived in the sea. In its way of life, it probably would have been more like a reptile, maybe like an alligator. And we do eat crocodilians (alligators and crocodiles). Except again, the crocodilians we consume are all freshwater (I can't find any recipes for saltwater crocodile - maybe growing to be 20' long frightens off the chefs).

So we have a large amphibian (over 6 feet long), that lived in saltwater but came out on land, and it's made of meat. I suspect, that like alligator, the texture would be fairly firm compared to most fish. I hate to compare it to chicken, but 'gator often

Alligator SteakBlackened Alligator Steak

does get that comparison. However, unlike chicken, it would have had the distinct taste of the sea. This animal was, after all, living in, breathing (probably), and drinking saltwater almost constantly. I suspect, then, we can think of strong, muscular fish, with firm textures. Like shark or swordfish, for example; less fishy in flavor, more steak-like in texture. Like chickens, amphibians, and reptiles, it may have been composed of both light and dark meat, and probably more oily (like a fish), than these animals, and with a distinct taste of the sea.

So we don't have a great modern analog for this creature, but like all meat, I'm sure that it would have been delicious. One of the unfortunate facts of life is that extinction is inevitable, and these creatures, like more than 90% of species that have ever lived, are extinct. This means that there is probably greater than a 90% chance that an extinct animal was the best tasting meat EVER - and yet we'll never know. But I'm sure that had we been around 400 million years ago, we'd have thrown one of these on a spit, by the beach, to find out first-hand what it tasted like.

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