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Scientist Tim Flannery time-travels to prehistoric Europe

Early humans survived in caves. Photo/Getty Images

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.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.