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.


Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excursion to NZ
104828 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Profiles

Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excur…

by Russell Baillie

The Springsteen sideman and ‘Sopranos’ star is reviving his own music career.

Read more
Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live now
104848 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Property

Rethinking the Kiwi dream: How New Zealanders live…

by Sharon Stephenson

Would you live with your ex? New Zealanders increasingly live alone or find creative ways to house themselves.

Read more
How the Internet of Things revolution could intensify hacking attacks
104871 2019-04-22 00:00:00Z Tech

How the Internet of Things revolution could intens…

by Peter Griffin

A super-connected world comes with an alarming downside.

Read more
The pioneering Kiwi surgeon who heads a world-leading team
104715 2019-04-21 00:00:00Z Profiles

The pioneering Kiwi surgeon who heads a world-lead…

by Clare de Lore

Harvard-based New Zealander Simon Talbot leads a team of surgeons performing astonishing hand transplants and plays a part in operations that...

Read more
Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zealand
104817 2019-04-21 00:00:00Z Music

Norah Jones’s new beginning and return to New Zeal…

by Russell Baillie

The jazz songstress is staying inspired by writing with others.

Read more
Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians should be hurt by Israel Folau
104814 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Social issues

Bill Ralston: Only fundamentalist Christians shoul…

by Bill Ralston

Israel Folau’s social-media post might condemn the Wallabies to Rugby World Cup hell, but the rest of us should ignore him.

Read more
What happens next with the Mueller report?
104863 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z World

What happens next with the Mueller report?

by Noted

Did Trump “corrupt” with intent?

Read more
The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture clash behind ‘The Piano’ ballet
104740 2019-04-20 00:00:00Z Movies

The Heart Dances: Lifting the lid on the culture c…

by Russell Baillie

Documentary offers an intriguing look at the clash of artistic sensibilities behind adapting The Piano into a ballet.

Read more