What do we think about when we think about Europe? Some might think of history and art, others of football, welfare state, or the horrors of war and genocide. Europe is all these things, but even combining them all we get a very partial view of the old continent. For a simple reason: all these things happened in the last 3,000 years, while Europe has been around for at least 100 million years.
I have just finished reading a great book that sheds light into the little known 99.999% of European history. The book is appropriately titled “Europe: The First 100 Million Years” and is written by the Australian palaeontologist Tim Flannery. It is a fascinating journey into the natural history of Europe, from the era of dinosaurs to modern times.
The book, packed with information, will change the way you think about the old continent. What follows is a selection of the coolest facts and insights I discovered while reading it.
That strange archipelago called Europe
“It is hard to overstate just how unusual Europe was towards the end of the age of the dinosaurs”.
100 million years ago Europe was a widely scattered archipelago with a unique fauna. Because of a process known as insular dwarfism, European dinosaurs evolved to be smaller than their relatives in other continents: examples found in Romania are the armoured Struthiosaurus and the duckbilled Telmatosaurus. Other animals instead ended up growing bigger because of the absence of predators (island gigantism), such as the terrifying pterosaurus Hatzegopteryx, that had a 12 meter wingspan and looked like a monster from a Stephen King novel.
Midwife toads, salamanders and newts are among the few, unlikely survivors of this era. Truly the oldest Europeans.
“Look a midwife toad in the eyes, and you are looking at a European whose ancestors blinked at the terrible Hatzegopteryx”
66 million years ago a big asteroid ended the era of dinosaurs. Slowly after it, a European proto-continent began to take shape. This larger and better connected landmass was able to host and grow a more diverse fauna and flora, with continuous exchanges with its neighbours Africa, Asia and North America (the latter was even occasionally connected to Europe before finally drifting apart).
Forests were “as cathedral like as the great forests in Borneo”, while the population of vertebrates grew from small rat-sized mammals to huge, omnivore pig-like creatures known as “hell pigs” and the gigantic bird Gastornis.
The apex and conclusion of this long period is the Miocene era (23 to 5.3 million years ago), “arguably Europe’s most enchanting epoch. A growing land area, enhanced migration corridors, and a favourable climate conspired to create an unprecedented diversity of mammals”. My favourite Miocene beast is the Anisodon, a large mammal with a horse-like head and a gorilla-like body.
Made in Europe
Europe played a crucial role in fostering the evolution of some very successful and still existing species. Antelopes, cervines and even the first known apes (as distinct to monkeys) originated in Europe. The latest discoveries reveal that the continent played a crucial role in the evolution of the first hominins.
When the Mediterranean dried up
Around 6 million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, the precursor of the Strait of Gibraltar closed tight. As a result, the Mediterranean dried up quickly and became “a vast salt plain, more than 4000 meters below sea level at its lowest point, dotted with hypersaline lagoons […] where temperatures may have reached 80 degrees Celsius”. When finally the ocean found its way again into the basin, some 600,000 years later, “it must have been an awesome sight that overall would have dwarfed any waterfall existing today”.
The devastating ice age
Europe is the continent whose recent natural history has been most affected by the ice age. The great variety of European vegetation, similar to that of North America and Asia today, was destroyed by the cooling that began 2.5 million years ago. Europe was so inhospitable that humans colonised it 10,000 years after Australia, despite it being much closer to Africa.
One of the most telling consequences of the ice age is the fact that today Mediterranean forests do not host any unique bird species:
“[…] tall forests were so devastated by the ice ages that none of the surviving patches was large enough to support the species of birds that were restricted to them”.
Islands and last survivors
For the rich European fauna though, more devastating than the climate changes was the arrival of humans. It is believed that prehistoric humans were responsible for the extinctions of cave bears, cave lions, woolly rhinos and mammoths in the last 30,000 years: the old continent was incredibly wild until the day before yesterday.
Intriguingly, European islands were the last refuge for many of these now extinct mammals until historical times. Cyprus hosted miniature hippos and straight-tusked elephants (whose skulls might have inspired ancient mythology), Sardinia and Corsica dwarf mammoths and giant otters, while the Balearic islands had the bizarre Balearian mouse-goat.
Knowing what Europe used to look like until very recently, the author makes the point that repopulating the old continent with wild animals from Africa and Asia would be the most natural thing to do. It would also be ethical, given the need to share the burden of conservation. The book closes with a beautiful image of what it could look like in 200 years if Europe embraced this rewilding path:
“We approach a continent that in one respect looks like the archipelago of old: cities stand out like islands linked with transport corridors […] Instead of being separated by sea, Europe’s cities are separated by vast areas of forests and woodlands […] The lifestyles of the Europeans are very different from those of the rest of the world’s population, which is concentrated in mega-cities without access to wild areas”.
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