Question: Who discovered a beavers anal glands taste like vanilla?

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Short answer: Either one of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica, or explorer Hernán Cortés.

Long answer: This is an interesting question. It fits in the category of ‘Who was the first person to look at a cow’s udder and think; I’m going to see if I can get something drinkable out of that..’.

As far as I can tell, the story goes way back. We find evidence in archaeological research for beavers in Europe and North America as far back as 5500 BC.

Beavers were most famously hunted for their pelts, meat and for medicinal use of intestines, like the glands that produce the aromatic ‘beaver oil’, aka castoreum. In Northern America, indigenous people like the Carrier are known to have used the castor gland for medicinal purposes before the arrival of colonising Europeans. The first written history of the medicinal use of castoreum in Europe dates back to at least 77 BC, when Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia of the different uses of Castoreum:

‘Doctors cause sneezing by its smell. It is soporific if the head is rubbed all over with beaver oil, rose oil, and peucedanum, or if by itself it is taken in water, for which reason it is useful in brain fever. It also arouses, by the smell of fumigation, sufferers from coma and hysterical, fainting women, the latter also by a pessary; it is an emmenagogue and brings away the after-birth if two drachmae are taken in water with pennyroyal. It is also a remedy for vertigo, opisthotonus, palsied tremors, cramps, sinew pains, sciatica, stomach troubles, and paralysis; in all cases by rubbing all over, or ground to the consistency of honey with seed of vitex in vinegar and rose oil. In this form it is taken for epilepsy, but in drink for flatulence, griping and poisons. The only difference in its use for the various poisons lies in the ingredients with which it is mixed. For scorpion bites it is taken in wine; for the phalangium and other spiders in honey wine if it is to be vomited back or with rue if it is to be retained; for the chalcisa with myrtle wine; for the horned asp and prester with panaces or rue in wine; for the bites of other serpents with wine. Two drachmae are a sufficient dose, of the other ingredients one drachma. It is specific in vinegar for mistletoe poisoning, in milk or water for poisoning by aconite, for white hellebore in oxymel and soda. It also cures toothache if pounded with oil; it is poured into the ear on the side of the pain; for ear-ache it is better mixed with poppy juice. Added to Attic honey and used as an ointment it improves the vision. In vinegar it checks hiccoughs. Beaver urine, too, counteracts poisons, and therefore is added to antidotes. It is however best preserved, as some think, in the beaver’s bladder.’

Seeing as Roman doctors caused sneezes by its smell and others had their heads rubbed all over with the stuff, it’s likely someone by then had noticed it’s vanilla-like smell. Or at least it’s smell, because until the early 1500s, vanilla was not yet known in Europe.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people were the first to cultivate the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs. It was only brought to Europe by Hernan Cortez in the 1520s. So in Europe, we likely knew the smell of a beavers anal glands before we new what vanilla was.

Castor canadensis (North American beaver) distribution: Dark green: native Light green: introduced

Castor canadensis (North American beaver) distribution: Dark green: native Light green: introduced

Green: Distribution of Vanilla species

Green: Distribution of Vanilla species

Looking at the two maps above, it is possible that there was a group of indigenous people in the america’s that had both beavers and vanilla orchids in their environment, and maybe in their diet, but I haven’t found any historical evidence to prove that. I’ll keep looking.

According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, castoreum was first used as a food additive in the early 20th century, but is now rarely, if ever, used in the mass-produced flavor industry. This is most likely because it is too expensive to produce. "In the flavor industry, you need tons and tons of material to work with," says flavor chemist Gary Reineccius in NPR's The Salt. "It's not like you can grow fields of beavers to harvest. There aren't very many of them. So it ends up being a very expensive product—and not very popular with food companies."

So, it seems like the question should be ‘Who was the first person to discover that vanilla tasted like a beaver’s anal glands?’, instead of the other way around. And it’s likely to have been an culinary adventurous mind among the Carrier people of middle America, or one of Hernan Cortés’ friends, somewhere in 16th century Europe.

Fun beaver fact 1: Giant beavers of over two meters in size used to roam North America in the pleistocene.

Fun beaver fact 2: One of Aesop’s fables, dated somewhere between 620 and 564 BC, describes the beaver as having the habit of gnawing of its own testicles when hunted.

Fun beaver fact 2: This bourbon allegedly uses castoreum for flavour. They don’t hide the fact either.

Maarten Kuiper