Mammoths, sabretooths and
hominids: 65 million years of mammalian evolution in Europe
Augustine, J and Anton, M
I ended up reading this book backwards.
Given my personal inclinations, I had to dive in and find my beloved Mammoths (Mammuthus
primigenius) and then work
outwards. With the spectacular melodrama that was dinosaur evolution, it's easy
to overlook the quieter excitements of the mammalian radiation. But who could
not be impressed by the graceful weight of the indricotheres and the sheer
sense of inventive adventure that went with elephant diversity...tusks curving
down, tusks curving up, curving out, upper jaw? Lower jaw? Two? Four? Sweeping
curves? Straight out? Straight out for 5 metres...
almost no provocation is needed for me to dig out some mammoth photos...
An academic book, “Mammoths…” balances it's learning with an easy, readable
style. I still got a bit lost in the scientific names (a consequence of approaching
it backwards perhaps!). The sense of change, of patterns growing and ecologies
coming and going, is clear and tracked across the centuries and, as a reader,
following a particular Order through its ups and downs, isolations and
survivals is a rewarding exercise ( and that's me back in the mammoths again!).
There is also another useful nail in the "stupid Neanderthal" coffin.
Human evolution continues bipedally across
the book. That sequence throws us into a reassuring, or possibly damning,
perspective with the realisation of just how short a time, even in mammalian
terms, "modern" humans have been around, how shockingly short our
" urban " phase has been so far and how much damage we've managed to
do in that period. But that is me responding to the book, rather than Augustine
and Anton themselves commenting
I started my working life as a zoologist
with a lot of geology stirred into the mix. That understanding and interest in
the world still lies within much of what I do, but now I tend to respond to
what I read as a storyteller as much as anything. In the descriptions of
evolving mammals, I can hear descriptions of characters from early tales.
Entelodonts and giant suoids (what a wonderful word!) could be describing the
Twrch Trwyth, the Erymanthean Boar and some of the ferocious boars hunted through
Irish myths. While surely the Nemean lion could be one of those felids while
hefty cave bears inform the bears of Scandinavian tales. Without falling over
any Jungian unconsciousness, getting tangled in the threads of genetic memory
or even playing with cryptozoological hopes, these creatures give me new faces
and family backgrounds for old friends, and offers new language and new images
for my 'telling. I am disappointed that Odysseus didn't encounter any of the
pigmy elephant races of the Med - or maybe those stories are contained in his
If you are looking for a solid read, a
sense of change over time and new eyes to look out over (European) fields with,