Europe: A Natural History by Tim Flannery – bold and brilliant

Evocation of Europe’s vanished past examines how pre-prehistory might inform tomorrow

Detail from the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, ca 32,000BC. Photograph: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Detail from the Lion man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, ca 32,000BC. Photograph: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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 amongst 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 dried 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.

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