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Europe: The First One Hundred Million Years 
by Tim Flannery.
Penguin, 368 pp., £10.99, June 2019, 978 0 14 198902 0
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Deep inside​ the Bruniquel Cave, in southwestern France, there are a number of mysterious assemblages. Built out of broken and stacked stalactites, they form two circles, and half a dozen ‘raised structures’. Nearly four hundred stalactites, carefully snapped off, were used in making them. Uranium-series dating, which measures the decay of uranium isotopes, has established that they were created 176,000 years ago. There were no Homo sapiens in Europe then; the Bruniquel Cave constructions were made by Neanderthals. Nobody can say what they are or what they meant, just as no one knows why other Neanderthal cave sites feature collections of bear skulls arranged into patterns. People more and less like you and me painted the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet, and the human connection can still be felt. But Bruniquel doesn’t come from our past at all. The line goes dead, and there are strangers in the dark.

Cretaceous Europe, around eighty million years ago

Cretaceous Europe, around eighty million years ago

Push further back into the geological record, and everything becomes fluid. The seabed is found in the mountain, the forests are deep under the ground, the shorelines have been erased and written over. The very plates of the Earth have moved, the oceans have come and gone; what remains is a crumpled palimpsest of all these past states. Ancient and alien as they are, the Bruniquel monuments are still in situ. But at greater depths of time, does it make sense to talk about locations we know today? If we were to stand on the shores of the ancient Tethys Ocean a hundred million years ago, and look out towards a vast archipelago, could we really call our surroundings ‘Europe’?

Maybe so. Defining Europe at all is ‘a slippery undertaking’, Tim Flannery writes at the start of Europe, ‘its diversity, evolutionary history and shifting border make the place almost protean.’ But definitions can be found, and for natural history purposes Europe’s rocks provide a baseline: in strictly geological terms, ‘Europe extends from Ireland in the west to the Caucasus in the east, and from Svalbard in the north to Gibraltar and Syria in the south.’

Some of these rocks are ‘unimaginably old’ – more than three billion years in parts of Scotland, Scandinavia and the Baltic. But there wasn’t much life to be seen back then, so Flannery sets his time-machine for the hundred-million-years-ago mark, in the late Cretaceous period, the moment when the first distinctively European organisms evolved. Or at least, the moment when palaeontology begins to furnish us with evidence of such locally distinct creatures: Flannery is at pains to remind us that the incompleteness of the fossil record means we only ever have a very partial picture of life in the prehistoric past. ‘Ghastly blanks are the norm,’ he cautions, introducing the useful palaeontological axiom devised by Philip Signor and Jere Lipps in 1982, ‘since the fossil record of organisms is never complete, neither the first nor last organism in a given taxon will be recorded as a fossil.’ In other words, no individual fossil creature is exemplary of the first or the last of its kind; in palaeontology, we are always walking into the cinema halfway through the film, and leaving before the end.

What, then, were these first specifically European organisms? The most dramatic of them were peculiar, diminutive dinosaurs that inhabited a large island known as Hateg: horse-sized sauropods and mini titanosaurs, scaled-down duck-billed hadrosaurs and miniature herbivorous iguanodons. They were joined (and probably eaten) by a giant pterosaur, Hatzegopteryx, which walked rather than flew, and seems to have been the apex predator of the late Cretaceous Hateg ecosystem: as tall as a giraffe, with a three-metre-long skull and a ten-metre wingspan; Flannery describes it ‘crawling about on its wrists, with its great leathery wings folded over its body like a shroud’.

The fossils of the Hateg fauna were first discovered in the late 19th century by an eccentric Transylvanian baron, Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás. Nopcsa was an overlooked figure for most of the 20th century – perhaps because he was extremely rude, but also perhaps because he was openly gay – and his contribution to palaeontology has only recently been recognised. He was an obsessive fossil enthusiast and a serious but erratic scholar (at one point he planned to invade Albania and crown himself king), the first person to begin excavating and classifying the fossils of the Hateg basin in Romania. He was also the first to propose (correctly) that Cretaceous Europe had been an island archipelago, arguing that the small size of the continent’s dinosaurs could be attributed to insular dwarfism, the now well-recognised tendency of island species to become smaller than their mainland counterparts. The opposite, equally well-attested effect – island gigantism – may explain the giant Hatzegopteryx. Both processes are observable in the long history of Europe’s island faunas. Millions of years later, during the Pleistocene period, numerous Mediterranean islands, including Crete, Malta and Sicily, were home to an assortment of miniature elephants, most of which died out around 11,000 years ago (about the time when humans arrive on the islands, predictably). The dwarf elephant of Cyprus was only a metre high at the shoulder; the island was also home to a tiny, sheep-sized hippo. Minorca, meanwhile, had a giant rabbit as big as a medium-sized dog.

Nopcsa’s Hateg was a ‘land of dragons’, Flannery writes, conjuring with the imagery of European folklore. It was bounded to the south by the Tethys, a tropical ocean that divided the archipelago from Africa, reaching eastwards through what is now the Indian Ocean, and on towards Australasia. North of Hateg, a sprawl of islands gave onto the great landmass of Bal and the cold Boreal Sea, its waters white with an abundance of coccolithophores – microscopic phytoplankton, whose calcite casings would eventually form the chalk beds of Northern Europe. Further north still, a land bridge to North America existed via Greenland, while to the west of Hateg, an arc of islands that would become parts of Britain, Ireland, Spain and France ranged from the Boreal Sea down towards Africa. Populated by a unique fauna and flora that traced their ultimate origins to the regions that became North America, Africa and Asia, the archipelago was a ‘receiver of immigrants’.

Sixty-five million years ago, after an asteroid struck the Earth, Europe’s little dinosaurs were obliterated along with all the others – all the others that weren’t birds, anyway – and much besides. Around three-quarters of animal species became extinct, and the planet would take many millions of years to recover. The European world that gradually emerged in the battered aftermath of the impact is partially represented by a series of fossils discovered 25 metres beneath the turf of a football field in Hainin in Belgium. They show that five million years after the catastrophe, Hainin was an area of thick forest. Crocodiles, turtles and large fish populated its lakes; the undergrowth stirred with frogs, salamanders and small insectivores, including the strange kogaionids, the only mammals that have ever hopped like frogs to get around. Blind snakes and amphisbaenids burrowed through the leaf litter. It was a chthonic fauna: fossorial, subterranean, aquatic, amphibious. Such were the creatures whose ancestors had survived the asteroid strike, and the devastation and darkness that came in its wake. ‘It is as if only the bowels of the Earth itself could offer refuge from such destruction,’ Flannery writes.

Ten million years after the asteroid, a proto-continent was emerging from the northern waters of the archipelago, and the Earth was entering a phase of rapid warming (no one is quite sure what caused the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide at this point, though it seems to have been released into the atmosphere at a far slower rate than current emissions; soberingly, the eventual level of warming was 5-8°C). With no large herbivores to check plant growth after the death of the dinosaurs, Europe was blanketed by enormous trees – an ur-greenwood, pristine and un-munched for millions of years. The balance was upset by a new arrival from across the North American land bridge: Coryphodon, one of an early group of plant-eating mammals known as Pantodonts. They weighed the better part of a ton and were, according to Flannery, ‘overstuffed shrews … functioning somewhat like dim-witted bulldozers’. With no predators in their new home, they ‘feasted and wreaked havoc’, chomping their way through the stillness of the European forests. Other creatures arrived in their wake, drifting in over land and sea: primitive ferret and otter-like beings, pangolins, early predatory mammals, frogs and toads, bats, primitive ungulates and the first primates. The rat-like insectivores and hopping mammals of the European forests, isolated since the apocalypse, were swept away.

Something of the richness of this new Eocene fauna has been preserved at Messel, near Frankfurt, where the bottom of an ancient lake was discovered in the pit of a lignite mine. Fifty-four million years ago it was fringed by rainforest, and set about by volcanoes, which occasionally emitted clouds of carbon dioxide. Settling over the surface of the lake, these clouds spelled death for passing creatures. The muddy sediment into which they sank is now a yellowish oil shale, between whose leaves the creatures lie as perfect as pressed flowers, with fur, feathers, skin and stomach contents all immaculately petrified. Even colour has been preserved in some cases. It’s a snapshot of a lost world: crocodiles, gar, proto-hedgehogs, ostrich-like birds, primitive owls, falcons, parrots, turtles, beetles, and even a very early primate.

Almost all these beings in turn disappear, in an obscure extinction event that marked the end of the tropical Eocene and the start of the dryer, cooler Oligocene, about 34 million years ago. It is known as ‘la grande coupure’ (‘the great cut’) and as with most extinctions, it seems to have been brought about by climate change – in this case a rapid cooling, followed by the emergence of an entirely new fauna that replaced the old. The mammals of the Oligocene are often described as though they were halfway creatures, semi-formed prototypes: dog-bears (bear relatives that looked like dogs), bear-dogs (dog relatives that looked like bears), large cat-like sabre-toothed hunters that were not true cats, and the most charismatic members of the Oligocene bestiary, the entelodonts, or ‘hell pigs’: each as big as a cow and equipped with huge crocodile-like jaws, a sort of ‘gigantic, hyper-carnivorous warthog’. Not actually pigs at all, they were more closely related to whales.

Andso the cycles turn. Extinction follows extinction, one climactic epoch shades into the next, each startling array of fauna and flora is gradually or suddenly replaced. The slow grind of the continents pushes mountains into place and shapes the boundaries of the seas; land bridges open to allow great migrations, seas rise to cover the land, ice sheets encroach and then recede. Flannery charts the changes, as told in the fossils and rocks, and as revealed by the sciences that have read them. He dips into ocean and lake to examine the lost European coral reef, or the thirty million square mile raft of duckweed that once covered the Arctic, or the giant sea-snails of the Paris basin; he embarks on safaris through savannahs and laurel woods alive with a European megafauna of rhinos, early giraffes and chalicotheres: these were, he says, ‘among the strangest mammals that ever lived’, and included Anisodon, a being ‘so unfathomable as to belong in a fairy tale’. With a horse-like head on a gorilla-like body, walking on its knuckles in the manner of a great ape, it was ‘Europe’s answer to the ground sloths of South America and the gorillas of Africa’.

Among the more baffling and dramatic events he chronicles is the Messinian Salinity Crisis, a roughly 600,000-year period at the end of the Miocene, when the clockwise twist of the African continent closed the straits of Gibraltar and cut the Mediterranean off from the Atlantic. In only a thousand years the sea almost completely dried up, leaving a vast salt plain, baking hot and uninhabitable by anything other than extremophile bacteria. What had been islands became isolated plateaus, standing several kilometres proud of the salt; the mouth of the Nile cut itself a valley two and a half kilometres deeper than present-day Cairo. Eventually the Atlantic broke through again, falling in a four-kilometre waterfall into the empty basin of the sea, refilling the Mediterranean at a rate of ten metres a day.

The story of the continent’s infancy and growth is expertly and engagingly told. But as you might expect, the drama of the past set out here leads inexorably towards our own appearance on stage. As Bruniquel shows, however, others were here before us. Many others. The reconstructed early history of the hominins – the group that includes Homo sapiens as well as other kinds of people, long lost – is now thought to show that our earliest known human ancestor, Graecopithecus, came from the Europe of around seven million years ago. However, the evolution of Homo, our own genus, seems to have taken place in Africa, at a much later date. The first member to migrate northwards was Homo erectus, which crossed into Europe around 1.85 million years ago. Living partly in caves, and most likely using fire, they remained on the continent until about half a million years ago, when the Elster glaciation smothered the northern half of the continent in ice, transforming its environment once more.

They were supplanted by the Neanderthals, who also evolved in Africa, and who enter the European picture shortly after this glacial period. Bigger than modern humans, and with larger brains, Neanderthals shared 99.7 per cent of their DNA with us. Relatively little is known about their lives or their culture, though it seems they may have cared for the dead, something often considered a uniquely human trait. The Bruniquel constructions certainly speak of other mysteries. They had mastered fire, were capable, it seems, of preparing animal skins to wear, and had some relatively sophisticated technology – by about 300,000 years ago they were using tree bark to make pitch, with which to haft flint heads onto spears. Their skills with wood also appear to have been quite advanced: a cache of spears found in Germany are so carefully weighted that replicas have been found to fly ‘as well as the best modern javelins’. Much stronger than modern humans, Neanderthals were ‘obligate carnivores’, who fed almost exclusively on meat, hunting deer, boar, mammoths and aurochs. Their hair was red, their skin was pale, their eyes were blue; they were adapted to the cold and low light of the Ice Age north, and they lived a dangerous life hunting huge mammals. Our closest relative, and the last other human species we shared the planet with, they are ‘a profound enigma’, Flannery writes. ‘After they became extinct somewhere in Western Europe about 39,000 years ago, we were left alone.’ What happened to them?

There is little concrete evidence, but as with the miniature elephants of the Mediterranean, the answer is very probably that Homo sapiens happened to them. Perhaps there was competition for habitat and food, perhaps there was disease, perhaps there was war and extermination. What is beyond doubt is that there was close contact between the two species, because whatever else may have happened, we know that there was successful interbreeding. Indeed, it was a hybrid people descended from sapiens-Neanderthal unions that seems to have displaced the original Neanderthals. Fossil human remains from across Europe indicate that for the first 25,000 years of human occupation, all Europeans traced their descent to these first hybrids, and carried about 6 per cent of Neanderthal DNA. Flannery calls them ‘bastards’, and wonders whether, had scientists been around back then, ‘they might have classified the Europeans as a new hybrid species.’

Hybridity, immigration, transformation: natural Europe, for Flannery, is most stable in its changeableness, and purest in its bastardy. It is ‘the mother of métissage’, a crucible of crossbreeds in which frogs, elephants, birds, ungulates, humans and others have successfully interbred with their close relatives. The wisent or European bison, Europe’s largest mammal, is descended from hybridisation between steppe bison and aurochs; the Italian sparrow and edible frog are both hybrids too. ‘Because of its position at the crossroads of the world, Europe has had many immigrant species that provided unprecedented opportunities for hybridisation,’ Flannery writes. ‘It may be this fact, as much as anything, that has driven evolution at such a rapid pace in Europe, and which in turn has lent many European species the capacity to colonise new and environmentally different lands.’ And perhaps it was this hybrid nature that made the earliest sapiens-Neanderthal hybrid Europeans such ‘very special bastards’ – ‘pioneer beings, endowed with capacities not seen in either parent’.

Natural history or not, you can’t call a book Europe now, or maybe ever, without calling politics into play. And what Flannery is trying to do, both in passages like this and throughout the text, is quite clear. Against a long and ignoble tradition of European chauvinism whose core doctrines have been exceptionalism, race thinking and white supremacy – a tradition today expressed most clearly as a pan-European xenophobic obsession with immigration and racial replacement – he presents a counter-image, sanctioned by natural history: Europe as a crossroads, nature’s ‘receiver of immigrants’, ever since the time of the dinosaurs. It is no fortress of purity. It is a place whose essence is and has always been hybridity, migration and endless change. The political implication is plain.

This is all well and good; these arguments and others like them must be made and made again in the face of a resurgent fascism. But one of the major features of that European chauvinist heritage has been the conviction that the shape of history reflects the order of nature. Much as Flannery would like to work against bogus ideas of natural European purity, when he writes, for instance, that even in the late Cretaceous, Europe was ‘exerting a disproportionate influence on the rest of the world’, or when he notes that Europe is for natural reasons ‘a place where evolution proceeds rapidly – a place in the vanguard of global change’, he preserves the petrified imprint of European exceptionalism in his writing. Fossils might tell us the idea of European purity is a myth, but there are fossils in language too.

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