Saturday, 28 March 2015

Years of ice and hair - a book review

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. Thank you.

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 Lost Adventures*.

If you are looking for a solid read, a sense of change over time and new eyes to look out over (European) fields with, recommended.

Mammoths, sabretooths and hominids: 65 million years of mammalian evolution in Europe
Augustine, J and Anton, M
Columbia University Press, New York, 2002
ISBN 978-0-231-11641-1

*still lost, I'm afraid

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