This isn't a question for a real life situation I am in, but more for a simulation that I want to be as accurate as possible.

My setting is pre-refrigeration and someone has just successfully hunted and killed a deer. Assume a spear or arrow.

I now understand that 'field dressing' a carcass is the best course of action, and the 'hunters' will know this, so assuming that is done successfully, my question is how long will the meat last if nothing else is done to it?

The setting is Scotland, summer, and about 12 degrees (Celsius) with a bit of rain, if that matters.

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    Side note: in Scotland the average summer daytime temperature is rather higher than you imagine, in the mid to high teens. The record is 32.9 °C. Oct 17, 2019 at 16:59
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    We have always "field dressed" an animal after killing it. This involves opening the chest cavity and removing all of the internal organs. Be careful not to puncture any of the organs, as spilling the contents of the organs onto the meat will spoil it and render it inedible. Oct 17, 2019 at 19:53
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    @SeriousBri another interesting point is location. You specifically mention a temperature of 12 C and rainy, so the meat will not spoil as rapidly as it would in a hotter environment: extension.psu.edu/… Oct 17, 2019 at 20:10
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    @JonathanLandrum I've always wondered about the "don't puncture certain parts or the meat will be contaminated" bit. People eat practically all of the organs, even the liver, kidneys, and intestines; so I've always wondered why getting their contents onto other things would spoil them.
    – Loduwijk
    Oct 17, 2019 at 20:17
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    @bob1 and Loduwijk: deer don't have gall bladders :-) And of course, you don't want to make a mess with the intestines (and usually rather take them out intact and wash them so you can use them to make sausages). Still, in a survival situation where total meat preserved for eating is crucial, a spilled intestine would probably be dealt with by carefully washing, then possibly cutting and putting the (ex-)contaminated parts into the "boil well" pot. Oct 19, 2019 at 14:51

5 Answers 5


There is not a single "right" answer to this question. The body can last for much longer then you are willing to eat from it.

As a rule of thumb, maggots can start to appear within about 24 hours of the first fly landing on the body. If this causes you to stop eating, is a matter of how hungry you are.

Optimally you will start preserving (smoking) the meat as soon as practical, in most cases within 2 to 6 hours, which is about how long it should take you to get the animal back to camp/home. If you can't get back home the same day with time to start preserving, you probably want to start preserving it at the kill site.

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    The kill can also be placed inside a cotton bag that will allow the meat to breathe while also keeping flies off of the carcass (and thus preventing maggots). Oct 18, 2019 at 14:43
  • @JonathanLandrum I concur that is an option but the scenario "Assume a spear or arrow." would tend to rule that out as an option. Oct 18, 2019 at 16:35
  • In what way? Just because someone is hunting with primitive weapons does not mean they are not also carrying a cotton bag with them. Now, if this were a survival scenario, yes, I agree. Oct 18, 2019 at 16:38
  • @JonathanLandrum Because the times are primitive, not just the weapons "My setting is pre-refrigeration" while the question does not give a year, it seems to be prior to fire arms. Oct 18, 2019 at 16:49
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    @JamesJenkins: depending on how much pre-refrigeration: people did have cupboards with fly screen (? not sure about English translation: in German it's called Fliegenschrank de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fliegenschrank) to keep bugs away from meat that was stored at the (dry) air. That may be available in a scenario where the spear/arrow is a fallback because the gun is not available for some reason but probably not in stone-age scenarios (I have no idea about bronze age, but putting a loosely woven linnen screen on a box is thinkable with the technology they had). Oct 19, 2019 at 15:04

In addition to @JamesJenkins' answer:

  • Blood and innards of a deer are removed asap*, and AFAIK the same was done in pre-fridge days: they'd probably cook + eat the organs (possibly incl. the blood) and possibly wash the gut so it can later be used to make sausages. If they have hunting dogs with them, they'd get something as well (lung, bronchi).
    The abdominal cavity is preferrably left open in a way that allows it to dry - somewhat difficult in your rainy scenario (and for traditional transport which would tie the legs over a spear so two people can carry the deer).
    * Nowadays, you may get it home first where the whole procedure can be done more conveniently and under more hygienic conditions unless the drive is too long. 1 h is the official limit here in Germany.

  • For transport, the skin is left on - while this keeps the meat from cooling fast, it also guards the meat against contamination, including flies & Co.: this way, you'll only have to "guard" the abdominal cavity.
    In the described scenario of a couple of days' transport, the latter consideration would probably also win - unless the carcass with skin is too heavy for transport.

  • Nowadays, a deer is supposed to be kept in a fridge (possibly still in skin) not more than +7°C, and the appropriate aging to tenderize the meet then takes about one week (you can cut it up before that, and then either freeze the pieces or hang them again to finish the aging).
    12 °C in you scenario is above that but I'd think it is quite inside the temperature range that people did consider appropriate for aging venison in pre-fridge days (and actually much later, when farm fridges did not yet have the size to keep whole cows or sheep or deer...). They'd make sure the carcass is kept dry, though - otherwise you may get mold.

  • Flies were kept away (also later on when drying the ham or sausages) in homes in the pre-fridge day by what is called Fliegenschrank in German (I've seen some in Canada, too, but don't remember the English expression: it's a food storage cupboard that instead of glass panes has fly screen.
    Maggots are not nice, but AFAIK aren't poisonous after cooking. But flies tend not to wash their feet before landing on meat, and thus spread mold and bacteria which would be of far more concern in terms of spoiling the meat - maggots are just an indicator that flies have been there. Still, few people could afford to waste food, so it would probably have gotten a thorough boil and one would have hoped that that got it back into an OKish state for eating (risk of food poisoning and the increased risk of liver cancer some decades later are traded off against starving).

My guesstimate would be:

  • 2 days rain at +10 °C are probably OK, as that would also keep the flies away ;-)
  • 4 days rain at +20 °C would probably mean trouble (guesstimate based on how fast flies arrive when I get cow stomach/spleen/lung/... for the dog), but
  • for 4 days at 12 °C, some tissue used as fly screen and/or a tarp that keeps the rain out, or maybe giving the abdominal carcass an initial bit of smoking could make just the needed difference

Summary: assuming your hunters don't have too much trouble with the rain and flies
that the deer in your scenario may be arriving in town just perfectly aged for eating. Bon appetit.

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    Yes - roughly the same as I was thinking, but not ready to flesh out into an answer. The skin also acts as a sterile barrier that protects the un-exposed meat from bacteria and molds. It'll be the internal areas around the abdomen that go off first, with contamination spreading to the tissues fairly slowly. There's some guy in the USA that did tests of letting deer(?, moose, elk or perhaps beef) parts sit in a lake (don't know temp) submerged and pulled them up every so often to test for edibility - I think about 9 months was fine.
    – bob1
    Oct 19, 2019 at 20:30
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    It's this story - up to 2 years for horse, lamb and venison.
    – bob1
    Oct 19, 2019 at 20:32
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    @bob1: temp at the bottom of a lake with ice on top will be between 0 - 4 °C. The link mentions lactobacteria, so at least partially a fermentation is happening (compare fermented fish - and the taste it is (in)famous for. Also I heard that here in Europe people used to bury meat in order to tenderize it - kinda haut gôut as alternative to Irish stew). Putting it under anaerobic fermentation is different from preventing even surface drying at the air and with possibly flies around, though. Oct 19, 2019 at 21:32
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    As to how long meat keeps: we know properly frozen it lasts even longer mentalfloss.com/article/57100/… ;-) Oct 19, 2019 at 21:34
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    @Akabelle: the flies you linked go for live animals (and looking for their larvae is part of the cleaning/checking whether/what parts of the animal are safe to eat). AFAIK, the flies that go for carrion are others - but I'm no specialist on that question. Nov 18, 2019 at 16:37

You could consider salt curing your meat; e.g. corning, brining, jerking, pickling, etc.

“Salt inhibits the growth of microorganisms by drawing water out of microbial cells through osmosis. Concentrations of salt up to 20% are required to kill most species of unwanted bacteria.”

“Salted meat and fish are a staple of the diet in North Africa, Southern China, Scandinavia, coastal Russia, and in the Arctic. Salted meat was a staple of the mariner's diet in the Age of Sail. It was stored in barrels, and often had to last for months spent out of sight of land.”

Source: Wikipedia

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    another plus to this method is the fact that this would have been a common solution in the setting of the OP Nov 19, 2019 at 14:02

That temperature is great for hanging the carcass and allowing the meat to relax, a day minimum hanging for rigor mortis to come and pass. Keep that carcass dry though! Any warmer and you'd want to hang in a large cooler, or a heavily AC cooled storage room. You could hang that thing for a week or even longer provided it stays cool, dry, and pest free. Game bags are basically cheese cloth sacks that could keep the bugs off if they are prevalent, after that you just need to keep birds and mammals off from it. Remove a layer of meat with the fascia when you butcher, until the color is uniform.

  • The question indicated pre-refridgeration, so no cooler or AC room, but also Scotland where 12 C should not be uncommon.
    – Willeke
    Nov 28, 2023 at 5:58

Can't speak to deer. I've kept fish on canoe trips from noon one day to breakfast the next morning without a problem. I've also steamed fish, and carried the cooked fish for 36 hours without a problem. These were on trips with temperures in the mid teens (C) overnight to low 20's during the day.

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