If the past is a foreign country, the distant past is a very foreign one indeed. Tim Flannery’s new book takes us deep into the prehistory of Europe. Climbing aboard the time machine that he repeatedly invites us to use, we glimpse pygmy dinosaurs and terrifying terminator pigs the size of cows. We meet, on the island of Gargano in what is now southern Italy, a giant carnivorous hedgehog. Later, we learn of hippos in the Thames and woolly rhinos in Scotland, encounter a cobra in ancient Hungary and a small ape in what is now Tuscany. For much of the past hundred million years, the climate of the zone we call Europe was tropical or semi-tropical. Huge straight-tusked elephants wandered the continent, their dwarf descendants (only one metre tall) surviving in Cyprus until about 11,000 years ago. Europe’s natural history turns out to be dramatic, yet on timescales that are hard for most of us to absorb.
As in his earlier books, Flannery provides a clear but never condescending synthesis of recent scientific discoveries and debates. He is a master storyteller, with an eye for the revealing detail. He offers, for example, an arresting narrative of the asteroid strike, around sixty-six million years ago, that scientists now agree killed off the dinosaurs. It was powerful enough, he explains, to shock quartz, something otherwise achieved only by underground nuclear blasts. Yet the impact was two million times more powerful than the largest nuclear explosion and created more shocked quartz than any other event in Earth’s history. The apocalypse extinguished most life on Earth. A tsunami several kilometres high, followed by volcanic eruptions and huge fires, destroyed most of the forests, and the subsequent reduction of sunlight created an endless winter that killed most of the remaining flora and fauna. Even marine algae were destroyed, those whose skeletons formed the chalk under parts of England, Belgium, and France, notably the white cliffs of Dover. Amphibians and some turtles were the main survivors: the midwife toad, widespread in today’s Europe, is its oldest extant species.
Humans – in Europe as elsewhere – have a pretty dismal record, although they of course behaved like other species. They may have hunted mammoths to extinction. They probably eliminated the cave lions, either by competing for food or by displacing them from the caves. Giant hyenas and scimitar-toothed cats disappeared around the same time. Every indigenous creature on the Mediterranean islands, except for the Cypriot mouse, became extinct after the arrival of humans. Remarkably, there was a respite from extinctions from around 7,000 bce, when the muskox disappeared, until the seventeenth century, when aurochs and wild horses vanished. Beavers, wolves, and wisents (a cross between bison and aurochs) were almost wiped out. European bears probably survived (only just) by becoming vegetarian and hence less threatening. In the twentieth century, agricultural chemicals decimated birds and insects, making some species of ants extinct and skylarks rare.
One of the great qualities of Flannery’s approach is his weaving of the history of science into his narrative. Palaeontology and its related disciplines are surprisingly full of colourful characters, like the Transylvanian nobleman Franz Nopcsa Felső-Szilvás, flamboyantly homosexual and arrogantly aristocratic, who first identified some of Europe’s oldest dinosaur fossils. Or Sir Richard Owen, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, ‘one of the most dastardly scientists ever to live’ (the ethical reader is inclined to agree with Flannery’s assessment). More engaging was Dorothea Bate, an assistant at the British Museum who learned enough about fossils from her humble work to track down the remains of hippos in Cyprus, in the process surviving near-starvation, as well as sexual harassment by the British vice consul. Singling out unusual characters risks giving the impression that mental illness is an occupational hazard, since a disturbing number of the scientists he includes killed themselves (although not Owen or Bate). And just occasionally these individual stories, entertaining as they are, hijack the larger narrative.
Yet the interweaving of the personal with the scientific is important. While Flannery never doubts that scientific method will eventually triumph, he recognises that science is inseparable from politics and culture. Academic rivalries sometimes prevented discoveries from being recognised, and so did ideology. It was not only the Nazis who suppressed theories they did not agree with. Anti-German feeling, and the subsequent triumph of neo-Darwinian theory, meant that the important work of Richard Semon and others on non-genetic inheritance was not recognised for a hundred years.
Flannery brings to a wider public many relatively recent shifts in scientific thinking, particularly resulting from advances in genetics. DNA analysis shows that salamanders, newts, and possibly moles evolved in the European zone. It tells us that cows are descended from aurochs (enabling, as Flannery remarks, the creation of a European culture built on milk). And it sheds new light on the complex migratory exchanges between Europe, Africa, and Asia. Perhaps most intriguingly for us, it reveals that dark-skinned Homo sapiens from Africa – arriving in Europe long after they had spread to Asia and Australia – interbred with pale-skinned, blue-eyed Neanderthals, and that all Europeans living between 37,000 and 14,000 years ago were descended from these hybrids. Small percentages of Neanderthal genes survive in many Europeans today. The wider significance of these discoveries, Flannery points out, is to undermine the old theory that species were ‘pure’ and distinct. Hybrids often adapted more quickly to new conditions. These discoveries render old classification systems outdated, and also point to the need to revise legislation, on endangered species for instance. They encourage us to think differently about genetic manipulation. This is a book brimming over with insights and with implications for the present.
It nevertheless does not entirely achieve its stated goals: to explain how Europe was formed, how its history was uncovered, and why it came to be so important in the world. The first two questions are admirably answered, the third less so. Flannery argues that Europe was distinctive because it was a crossroads, and that this produced organisms and a human world that were special because of their hybridity. The continent’s natural history is one of immigration, by species of all kinds, assuredly an important point to make given recurrent notions of European uniqueness and ‘purity’. Yet, on the evidence he presents, areas of today’s Middle East would have a better claim to the title of crossroads of the world, and the argument about the wider implications of European evolution is not developed enough to be convincing.
Flannery’s enthusiasm is infectious, though. Scientific gravity does not prevent him from dubbing the period from about 23 to 5.3 million years ago the ‘Marvellous Miocene’, ‘arguably Europe’s most enchanting epoch’, or from regretting that humans did not manage to see certain ancient frogs and toads. And he remains an optimist. Despite climate change today occurring thirty times faster than at any time in the last 2.6 million years, he still sees a bright future for Europe, believing that its people can create a natural environment in which humans and other creatures (including recreated megafauna) can coexist. I sincerely hope he is right.