Scientist Tim Flannery time-travels to prehistoric Europe

by Linda Herrick / 10 February, 2019
Early humans survived in caves. Photo/Getty Images

Early humans survived in caves. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Europe: A Natural History

Europe: A Natural History makes those who dug it up as fascinating as those who lived there.

Australian writer Tim Flannery is a man of dazzling talents: scientist, climate change activist, academic, explorer. In his latest book, Europe: A Natural History, he also turns time-traveller, invoking HG Wells’ fictional invention as he first sets the dials to whizz back 100 million years, before the continent had begun to emerge as a separate entity.

To go back any further, he says, would be to enter a “ghastly blank”, a term palaeontologists use to describe a period devoid of any fossil remains.

Flannery’s investigation of Europe’s evolving waves of flora and fauna, which has taken 30 years to complete, opens on a large island, Hateg, now absorbed into the land mass of Transylvania. Here, he steps out of the time machine on to a glorious autumnal landscape, rich with vegetation.

But there’s a stench in the air. Three leathery figures, tall as giraffes, head for a dead beast on the beach. “Evil of eye and immensely muscular”, one of them decapitates the beast with its 3m-long beak and they start eating. They are flying reptiles, the giant pterosaurs. Our time explorer retreats to his ship.

How Flannery knows about the existence of Hateg is outlined in the next chapter, devoted to an extraordinary Transylvanian nobleman, Baron Franz Nopcsa, whose sister found the bones of a small dinosaur on their estate (sitting atop Hateg), sparking his lifelong study of fossils from the area.

Nopcsa, like many of the palaeontologists Flannery describes in the book, was deeply eccentric, with no sense of etiquette. He fell in love with an Albanian shepherdess, who became his secretary as he continued his meticulous, obsessive studies. They died tragically in 1933 and his collection of fossils now resides in the Natural History Museum, London. It’s details like this that so enliven Europe as Flannery twists the dials and slips through the geological epochs, periods that saw the continent populated – through long-gone land bridges to Africa and Asia – by creatures such as crocodiles, elephants, lions, tigers, primates, rhinos and hippos.

He explores the asteroid strike – about 66 million years ago – that wiped out the dinosaurs, an event with “shockwaves that would have rung Earth like a bell”, triggering eruptions and earthquakes globally and a tsunami several kilometres high, followed by a nuclear winter, then a 200,000-year “great warming”.

The early Neanderthals started to appear 400,000 years ago, relying on caves and fire to survive, followed by hybrids of Neanderthals and our ancestors, Homo sapiens. Flannery’s depiction of their domestic lives, art, hunting and domestication of animals is humane and poetic. But then, the book as a whole is a spectacular achievement.

By 14,000 years ago, Europe had become a “human-maintained ecosystem”, and so begins a history, leading to today and into the future, of a wave of extinctions due to near-endless wars, urban expansion, ruthless hunting and agricultural mismanagement.

As Flannery flicks the dial one last time, and takes us 180 years into the future, he refers to a German biologist who, in 1866, tried to classify Neanderthals as Homo stupidus. The name, he concludes, “may yet have some validity – for us”.

EUROPE: A Natural History, by Tim Flannery (Text Publishing, $40)

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the age of the machine?
102434 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

March of the Algorithms: Who’s at the wheel in the…

by Jenny Nicholls

Complacently relying on algorithms can lead us over a cliff – literally, in the case of car navigation systems.

Read more
IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computing
102458 2019-02-16 00:00:00Z Tech

IBM’s new quantum computer: The future of computin…

by Peter Griffin

The Q System One, as IBM calls it, doesn’t look like any conventional computer and it certainly doesn’t act like one.

Read more
James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth gap
102456 2019-02-15 14:54:45Z Politics

James Shaw: Capital gains tax key to fixing wealth…

by RNZ

The week before a major tax report is released, Green Party co-leader James Shaw has again challenged his government partners to back the tax.

Read more
Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma Chand
102448 2019-02-15 10:28:12Z Crime

Jealousy, murder and lies: The killing of Arishma…

by Anneke Smith

Arishma Chand was just 24 when she was murdered.

Read more
Top wine picks from Central Otago
102233 2019-02-15 00:00:00Z Wine

Top wine picks from Central Otago

by Michael Cooper

Tucked into small corners, Central Otago vineyards offer nuggets worth digging for. Wine critic Michael Coopers offers his top picks.

Read more
Ivanka and her tower of crumbs
102404 2019-02-14 10:33:12Z Arts

Ivanka and her tower of crumbs

by Preminda Jacob

For two hours each evening, an Ivanka Trump lookalike has been vacuuming a hot pink carpet at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Read more
Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing to keep up
102393 2019-02-14 09:52:16Z Social issues

Youth mental health is in crisis and NZ is failing…

by The Listener

The introduction of a free youth mental-health pilot for Porirua, and later the wider region, is welcome news, but it's far too little, far too late.

Read more
Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensive crouch
102387 2019-02-14 09:21:07Z Politics

Guyon Espiner: Year of delivery begins in defensiv…

by Guyon Espiner

For a government promising 'a year of delivery' it has begun in something of a defensive crouch.

Read more