Our pri­mor­dial ar­chi­pel­ago

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - DEREK TURNER


Seen from space, much of night-time Europe blazes with light, ev­i­dence of in­dus­try, ur­ban­ism and an ex­is­ten­tial rest­less­ness that has long im­pelled Euro­peans to im­pose moder­nity on them­selves and the world. Aus­tralian palaeon­tol­o­gist-ecol­o­gist Tim Flan­nery, au­thor of The Fu­ture Eaters and The Weather Mak­ers among many oth­ers, and dis­cov­erer of 29 species of kan­ga­roo, ex­plores what un­der­lies the old con­ti­nent’s in­som­nia, and the darker places be­tween our elec­tric is­lands.

He drills down through name­less, num­ber­less lay­ers, to ex­pose a chthonic con­ti­nent – when tec­ton­ics turned, seas drie d and re­filled, and cen­til­lions of alien life forms moved ur­gently across an in­dif­fer­ent Earth “without form, and void”, where “dark­ness was upon the face of the deep”. The world’s first co­ral reefs may have formed here, the first moles sifted soil, and hills were made by snails, while the ear­li­est ho­minids came out of Europe be­fore hu­mans came out of Africa. He ex­pertly con­jures up suc­ces­sive ex­otic ur-Europes out of rare pet­ri­fac­tions and the cul­tures of the hu­man cen­turies.

We “visit” Bal, Hateg, Mo­dac and Tethys, the ob­scurely res­o­nant names given to the pri­mor­dial ar­chi­pel­ago by the­o­rists of deep time. We vi­su­alise gi­raffe-sized, leath­ery-winged Hatze­gopteryx pterosaurs stalk­ing out from Cre­ta­ceous cy­presses to bat­ten on blood, like Nos­fer­atu – or the Lan­gelian flood, when At­lantic wa­ters cas­caded 4km to fill the parched plain of the Mediter­ranean at a stu­pen­dous 10m per day, like a vi­sion from Par­adise Lost.

We reach down through rock to where we be­gan, our faintly com­pre­hen­si­ble an­te­ces­sors who walked across a Suf­folk storm beach 800 mil­len­nia ago – or, a mere 40,000 years since, ate each other in fu­ture Spain, carved the Lion Man of Hohlen­stein-Stadel and the Venus of Hohle Fels, and speared or made obei­sance to Tran­syl­va­nian cave bears. A child and a dog ex­plored France’s Chau­vet Cave 26,000 years ago – the first un­equiv­o­cal com­pan­ion­ship of hu­mans and ca­nines – the ad­ven­turer smudg­ing char­coal as they passed palae­olithic paint­ings to the al­ready aban­doned Room of Skulls. Great auks stood guard on Si­cil­ian shores – cave li­ons’ roars split the Cantabrian night – mam­moths, au­rochs, gi­ant elk and wisent made the north con­ti­nent from Mayo to Ma­suria shake with their weight.

Euro­peans were be­com­ing “the mind over their land”, and wilder­ness was ev­ery­where un­der at­tack. Big and small an­i­mals fled into the mar­gins, but even as they went left spoor in the new apex preda­tor’s myr­iad mytholo­gies. The dream­time tale of Europa ab­ducted by Jupiter in bull guise, or the Bronze Age bull-leapers of Knos­sos, bor­row from ideas of au­rochs (which, roy­ally pro­tected, per­sisted in Poland un­til 1627). Polyphe­mus the cy­clops may have been in­spired by a fab­u­list find­ing an ele­phant skull. An­dro­cles’ lion was ter­ri­fy­ing, yet noble – the leop­ards on Ar­me­nian drink­ing ves­sels lethal, but lovely. Even the loathed wolf – Charle­magne founded La Lou­vet­erie in 813 to wipe them out, which it es­sayed with ef­fi­ciency un­til 1971 – suck­led Ro­mu­lus and Re­mus, and padded into her­aldry and vex­il­log­ra­phy.

Se­cre­tive sala­man­ders be­came basilisks, por­cu­pines in­tro­duced by Moors grunted into the ar­mo­rial bear­ings of Capetian kings, and al­chemists kept toads (Europe’s old­est ver­te­brates) as lu­nar fa­mil­iars. The Miocene bes­tiary might al­most be me­dieval, and sci­ence could re­in­force ro­mance; 17th-cen­tury cler­gy­man Robert Plot iden­ti­fied a di­nosaur fos­sil as a fe­mur, but be­lieved it had be­longed to a gi­ant from Al­bion-found­ing myth.

Palaeon­tol­o­gists were as colour­ful as their sub­jects, and good stew­ard­ship was seen in strange places. Sir Richard Owen pick­led Gideon Man­tell’s spine, but he also iden­ti­fied the largest ven­omous snake of all time (Laophis cro­taloides – an al­lu­sion to Lao­coön). Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szil­vás loved a shep­herd, as­pired to Al­ba­nia’s throne – and pi­o­neered Cre­ta­ceous clas­si­fi­ca­tions. Ro­ma­nia’s bears owe their lives to Ceaus­escu. The Nazi-sup­port­ing Hecks saved Prze­wal­ski’s Horse. Ger­man sol­diers dig­ging an air-raid shel­ter in Athens found and pre­served the first fos­sils of Grae­co­p­ithe­cus. One could cavil about ty­pos, or the hoary ca­nard that me­dieval schol­ars were flat-earth­ers but any reser­va­tions are out­weighed by bold and bril­liant evo­ca­tion of Europe’s for­ever van­ished yet para­dox­i­cally present as en­grams beneath our streets, in ev­ery land­scape fea­ture and wind sough­ing across “empty” spa­ces.

Flan­nery looks far for­wards as well as back, to see how pre-pre­his­tory might in­form to­mor­row – ad­vo­cat­ing up­dat­ing tax­on­omy and laws on en­dan­gered species, restor­ing biomass, and sen­si­tive rewil­d­ing. Wolves are al­ready lop­ing unas­sisted into Den­mark, Flan­ders and Paris, and golden jack­als have got to the Nether­lands, as at­ti­tudes al­ter, and mil­lions of hectares of farm­land fall into dis­use. Ho­race ob­served: “You may drive na­ture out with a pitch­fork, yet she will hurry back”. Hol­land’s Oost­vaarder­splassen, Eng­land’s Knepp and a grow­ing num­ber of other places tan­ta­lise with to­mor­row’s sa­faris, ad­ven­tures to be had in a newly en­vi­sioned Europe, as new and re­turn­ing species re­con­sti­tute a con­ti­nent, and lay down the fos­sils of the fu­ture.

Derek Turner is the au­thor of the nov­els

■ Dis­place­men­tand AModernJour­ney

Lion man of the Hohlen­stein Stadel, circa 32,000BC. Found in the col­lec­tion of the Ulmer Mu­seum.

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