You Could Drink This Man’s Frostbitten, Amputated Toes in a Cocktail

By Mindy Weisberger

After losing three toes to frostbite, a recent participant in one of the coldest long-distance races on Earth reached a toe-tally bizarre decision for what to do with the detached digits.

During the race, which took place in February in the Canadian Yukon, British competitor Nick Griffiths suffered frostbite so severe that three of his toes had to be amputated. Rather than simply disposing of the toes, he decided to donate them to a remote Canadian bar for use in a signature drink known as the “Sourtoe Cocktail,” which famously includes a dehydrated human toe, according to the Toronto Star.

It all began when Griffiths entered the 300-mile (483 kilometers) division of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a punishing race across frozen wilderness that takes place along the Yukon Quest Trail. Participants race on foot, sleds and mountain bikes, and temperatures can drop below minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees Celsius), according to the race’s website.

After 30 hours on the trail, with temperatures measured at below minus 40 degrees F (minus 40 degrees C), Griffiths dropped out with evidence of frostbite on several extremities, but the damage was most severe in his left foot.

Griffiths got the idea to donate his toes while recuperating in a Canadian hospital, when a nurse showed him video footage of her quaffing a drink containing a preserved human toe, served at a bar called the Sourdough Saloon, in the Yukon Territory, Griffiths told the Star. After hearing her story, he decided to contact the bar staff with the offer of three newly detached toes, which they were pleased to accept, the Star reported.

Griffiths’ bemused surgeon provided him with the amputated toes in vials of medical-grade alcohol, he told the Star.

For decades, the saloon has offered its Sourtoe Cocktail to intrepid imbibers — a tradition launched in 1973 using a toe that allegedly once belonged to a famous Canadian bootlegger. Patrons arrange to drink the cocktail by appointment and do so under the close supervision of a “Toe Captain.” The official toe wrangler ensures not only that drinkers touch the toe with their lips — a requirement for receiving an official certificate from the bar for consuming the cocktail — but also that they neither steal nor swallow the toe.

The cocktail must contain a minimum of 1 ounce of alcohol — and, of course, one human toe. Other than that, the drink’s contents are up to the drinker, though the Sourtoe experience often involves a shot of a local beverage known as Yukon Jack — 80-proof liquor blended from Canadian whisky and honey, according to the Sourdough Cocktail Club website.

Sourtoe Cocktail Club

More than 100,000 people have sampled the Sourtoe, and in the decades since the grisly drink was first poured, more than 10 toes have been acquired by the saloon operators. Preserved toes are stored in salt when they’re not floating in a cocktail. But they don’t last forever, and the saloon depends on generous toe-nations such as Griffiths’ to keep the Sourtoe Cocktail available for the curious and the brave, Jonny Klynkramer, the Sourdough Saloon bar manager, told the Star.

“We always prefer big toes — they’re the meatiest,” Klynkramer said.

Scientists have found that our big toe was one of the last parts of the foot to evolve

As our early ancestors began to walk on two legs, they would also have hung about in trees, using their feet to grasp branches. They walked differently on the ground, but were still able to move around quite efficiently. The rigid big toe that eventually evolved gives efficient push-off power during walking and running.

The findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In this new study, scientists made 3D scans of the toe bone joints from living and fossil human relatives, including primates such as apes and monkeys, and then compared them to modern day humans.

They overlaid this information onto an evolutionary tree, revealing the timing and sequence of events that produced the human forefoot.

The main finding is that the current shape of the bones in the big toe, or “hallux” in anatomical language, must have evolved quite late in comparison with the rest of the bones that they investigated.

In an interview with the BBC, lead author of the study Dr Peter Fernandez, from Marquette University in Milwaukee, said: “Our ability to efficiently walk and run on two feet, or be ‘bipedal’, is a crucial feature that enabled humans to become what they are today. For everything to work together, the foot bones first had to evolve to accommodate the unique biomechanical demands of bipedalism”.

He then said: “The big toe is mechanically very important for walking. In our study, we showed that it did not reach its modern form until considerably later than the other toes.”

When asked whether the rigid big toe evolved last because it is most or least important, Dr Fernandez commented: “It might have been last because it was the hardest to change. We also think there was a compromise. The big toe could still be used for grasping, as our ancestors spent a fair amount of their time in the trees, before becoming fully committed to walking on the ground.”

He added: “Modern humans have increased the stability of the joint to put the toe in an orientation that is useful for walking, but the foot is no longer dextrous like an ape.”vvvv

The reason that our ancestors stood upright and then walked on two feet is still a mystery, but there are plenty of ideas. Scientists think that walking may have evolved, either because it freed our hands to carry tools, or because climate change led to a loss of forests, or that overhead arms can be used to support walking on two legs along thin branches.

Studies such as this new one show that early human ancestors must have able been to walk upright for millions of years, since the 4.4 million year old fossil Ardipithecus ramidus, but that they did not fully transition to a modern walk until much later, perhaps in closer relatives within our own group, Homo.

This new study, alongside other work, now confirms that early walking humans, or “hominins” still used their feet to grasp objects.

Dr William Harcourt-Smith from City University of New York, who was not involved in this study, said: “They are suggesting that one of the earliest hominins, Ardipithecus, was already adapting in a direction away from the predicted morphology of the last common ancestor of chimps and modern humans, but not ‘towards’ modern humans. To me this implies that there were several lineages within hominins that were likely experimenting with bipedalism in different ways to each other.”

Professor Fred Spoor, an expert in human anatomy at the Natural History Museum, London said: “It was a bit of shock when hominins were found that have a grasping, or opposable, big toe, as this was thought to be incompatible with effective bipedalism. This work shows that different parts of the foot can have different functions. When a big toe is opposable, you can still function properly as a biped.”

The scientists involved say that this work shows that early hominin feet had a mixed and versatile set of functions. Becoming human was not a giant step, but a series of gradual changes, with some of the last and arguably most important changes being made to big toes. Peter Fernandez said that they would like to conduct similar analyses on the remaining bones of the forefoot, in order to fully characterise the changes involved in the evolution of bipedal walking.