Alytes obstetricans, the common midwife toad, may be as small as a bar of hotel soap with skin as drab as leaf litter, yet its life story is, quite simply, one for the ages. The job that lends the toads their informal name is done by the male. Come breeding season, a female toad will solicit the services of a male, who mounts her from behind, gripping her torso with his front legs while angling his rear toes to stimulate her genitals. A few minutes pass, he gives her midriff a firm squeeze, and out pops the “baby”: a glistening mass of toad eggs, linked together like pearls on a string, which the male promptly fertilizes with a shot of sperm. As the female hops away—her task is through—midwife becomes nursemaid: the male carefully untangles the inseminated strands of eggs and wraps them around his body. He will carry this cargo everywhere for the next month or two, cleaning and hydrating the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. Yes, he’s a model modern father.
Alytes is also more European than a pack of Gauloises cigarettes. As Tim Flannery explains in Europe: A Natural History, his deeply satisfying and splendidly written survey of the geological, zoological, climatological, and biophilosophical roots of that heavyweight set of coordinates we call Europe, midwife toads are among the only animals that survive from the dawn of the European project 100 million years ago. That is when the European subcontinent, then a tropical archipelago, began to consolidate and take the shape it more or less has today, and when Europe as a biologically distinct landscape emerged.
It was the last phase of the age of the dinosaurs, and Europe certainly had its share of fantastic giants. In 2002 researchers discovered in the Transylvania region of Romania what may have been the world’s largest pterodactyl. Hatzegopteryx had enormous, leathery wings that could enfold it like Dracula’s cloak or open to a thirty-foot span—about as long as a London bus—and a nine-foot head equipped with a dagger-like beak, perfect for spearing the smaller dinosaurs on which it preyed. Ammonite mollusks with spiraling opalescent shells the size of truck tires swam in the tropical waters off Europe, while in the north vast sheets of planktonic algae called coccolithophores bobbed in the waves, their skeletons destined to end up as the large chalk deposits found in Belgium, France, and, most famously, the white cliffs of Dover.
Nearly all of the “core fauna” from Europe’s infancy have long since gone extinct, but not the midwife toads. “More venerable and more distinctly European than any other creatures, the alytids are living fossils that should be considered nature’s nobility,” Flannery writes. They are “as precious as the platypus and lungfish.” And if the name “midwife toad” has a faintly literary feel to it, evoking an image of a beloved Victorian children’s book, so do other creatures in Flannery’s European bestiary. We learn about true moles, sleekly pelted mammals with tiny eyes, tiny ears, and large claws that spend most of their lives underground. Members of the Talpidae family are now found scattered throughout the world, but recent research suggests that the mole first evolved in Europe—appropriate enough for the star of The Wind in the Willows. Europe’s most ancient mammalian group turns out to be the dormice, which are not mice but rather small, arboreal rodents with furry tails that episodically hibernate: no wonder Lewis Carroll’s tea-partying dormouse was a chronic narcoleptic. Literary and biological archetypes at times fortuitously intertwine.
But what exactly is Europe, and who or what counts as European? Flannery realizes that the definitional task is “a slippery undertaking.” After all, contemporary Europe is not a distinct continent but “an appendix—an island-ringed peninsula projecting into the Atlantic from the western end of Eurasia.” Flannery finds unity in geology: for his purposes, “Europe is best defined by the history of its rocks.” Similar underlying rock formations link Ireland in the west to the Caucasus region in the east, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the north to Syria and Gibraltar in the south. So defined, Flannery writes, “Turkey is part of Europe, but Israel is not; the rocks of Turkey share a common history with the rest of Europe, while Israel’s rocks originate in Africa.”
Of course, there’s also the more amorphous condition of feeling like a European, by dint of ancestry or cultural, political, and religious preferences. Flannery, who is Australian, admits to feeling a strong European identity, perhaps an inevitable result of his education: the stories of Europe’s wars and monarchs “were drilled into me as a child, but I was taught next to nothing about Australia’s trees and landscapes,” he writes. When he first visited Europe as a student, the landscape felt deeply familiar. How could one not be dazzled by it and its ancient, vibrant culture, “whose achievements include the creation of the first pictorial art and human figurines, the first musical instruments, and the first domestication of animals”?
In view of current events, Flannery’s Europhilia might seem poorly timed; not only is the European Union struggling to remain unified, but white supremacy movements—which are, ultimately, European supremacy movements—have surged. Yet a major theme of Flannery’s book debunks any notion of white supremacy or the inherent grandness of the Nordic, Germanic, or “Aryan” genome. Europe has always been at the crossroads of the world, a place where immigrant species from Africa, Asia, and the Americas have converged, mingled, and hybridized, blending genome with genome to yield a bounty of new species that then colonized new lands.
Europe is a place of mongrels—and Europeans are “very special bastards indeed,” Flannery writes. “There can be no more dangerous concept than the idea of racial or genetic purity.” This is particularly true when it comes to our own evolution. We may think of Africa as the cradle of the human race, but Flannery argues that the emergence of modern Homo sapiens owed much to Europe, the global centrifuge where our forebears had one final opportunity to trade DNA with other members of the hominid line—before we moderns were the last ones standing.
Flannery’s focus on Europe serves as a handy storytelling device, allowing him to convey a tremendous amount of natural history while maintaining a plot and point of view. Europe is our hero; watch our hero grow. Scenes are vividly, sensorily drawn. You feel the warmth of the ancient Tethys Sea, and you want to scoop up the single-celled Nummulites that crept along the Tethys floor like mobile coins, Methuselah’s spare change, sucking up detritus over a lifespan of a hundred years. Because most of the history takes place after an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, extinct mammals, which are often given short shrift in favor of T-rexes or velociraptors, here take center stage. It’s startling to realize how teeming and diverse Europe’s megafauna used to be, a kind of Serengeti on the Seine.
With the onset of the Oligocene epoch, 33.9 million years ago, Earth’s lengthy tropical age gave way to a cooler, drier climate. A downward-sloping portion of Europe’s underlying tectonic plate broke off and began to push the embryonic Alps mountain range skyward. At the same time, Africa’s plate shifted direction and headed straight toward Europe, gradually closing off the Tethys Sea and further uplifting the Alps. Waterways that had separated Europe from Asia disappeared, and for a brief spell a land bridge connected Europe with North America.
As a result, Europe was flooded with animal immigrants from all points of the compass. In came the first cats, the first songbirds, tapirs, marmots, and hedgehogs; dog-bears that looked like dogs but were related to bears; bear-dogs that looked like bears but were related to dogs; ruminants that resembled musk deer with fangs; and the Oligocene’s “signature species,” the entelodonts, or “hell pigs,” apex predators of the day. Flannery is no fan of pigs, having watched wild ones in Australia rip apart lambs, and he revels in bringing the repellent ferocity of this extinct clan to life: their bull-sized bodies bearing massive heads “garishly ornamented with bony warts the size and shape of a human penis,” their “crocodilian jaws” displaying “savage tusks and grinding molars.” Fossil evidence suggests that entelodonts would run down entire herds of their prey in an orgy of carnivory, slashing and attacking everything in sight and saving the extra meat for later. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Flannery notes wryly, “if George Orwell took inspiration from the Oligocene for his novel Animal Farm.”
The Miocene epoch that followed, stretching from about 23 million to 5.3 million years ago, was “arguably Europe’s most enchanting.” The Alps had reached their current elevation of nearly 16,000 feet, migratory corridors had widened, the climate was mild, and mammalian diversity exploded. Europe hosted up to fifteen species of rhinos, as well as saber-toothed and scimitar-toothed cats, long- and short-necked giraffes, and the improbable chalicotheres, herbivorous, odd-toed ungulates with heads like horses and steeply sloping bodies like gorillas. Miocene Europe had its genuine gorillas as well, along with an array of other hominids—the group that includes living and extinct great apes and humans.
More specifically, Europe had early hominins—the taxonomic descriptor for fully upright apes, of which humans are the only surviving species. In fact, some of the oldest known hominin fossils have been found in Greece: a 7.2-million-year-old jawbone and a 5.7-million-year-old set of footprints thought to belong to a bipedal ape called Graecopithecus. Over the past couple of years, paleontologists have acridly debated the significance of the Graecopithecus evidence, and whether it indicates that hominin evolution began in Europe rather than in Africa. Whatever the case, soon after those footprints were laid, hominins abandoned Europe, and would not reappear for another four million years.
The brief Pliocene epoch brought Europe’s last great flowering of biodiversity, and giantism ruled. At nine feet long and weighing fifty-seven pounds, Laophis crotaloides was the largest venomous snake of all time; the land tortoise Titanochelon had the bulk of a Volkswagen Beetle; and off Europe’s shores swam the megalodon shark, twice the length of today’s great white and with a bite five to ten times more forceful.
Those huge jaws wouldn’t bite for long. The climate was cooling, and with the Pleistocene epoch that began 2.59 million years ago came a series of ice ages. Glaciers and ice sheets spread across the globe like spilled paint, covering, at their widest reach, 30 percent of Earth’s surface. Permafrost extended down to Provence, while the future sites of London, Paris, and Berlin were “a vast polar desert, all but devoid of plant life.” More than half of extant mammals and a broad selection of reptiles, birds, and other creatures were wiped from “the cosy café of temperate Europe.”
Time for a different clientele. New animals appeared that could weather the chill, including giant beavers, moose, large jaguars, reindeer, woolly rhinos, and those possibly oversold Ice Age celebrities, the woolly mammoths. And it is during the Pleistocene that early humans appeared in Europe in significant numbers and, for better or worse, began to reshape the world. Flannery briefly discusses Homo erectus, who arrived from Africa about 1.8 million years ago, apparently had the social skills to care for the toothless and disabled among them, and may even have been able to speak. He is far more interested, however, in the next arrivistes, who emigrated from Africa about 400,000 years ago: Homo neanderthalensis.
What to make of the Neanderthals? When researchers began studying Neanderthal remains in the mid-nineteenth century, they derided the species as beetle-browed brutes who were clearly our inferiors, incapable of “moral and theistic conceptions,” as William King, the geologist who named them, put it. King’s contemporary, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, proposed naming them Homo stupidus. That derogatory attitude carried over well into the twentieth century, but recent molecular and paleoanthropological studies have yielded a far more nuanced portrait of Neanderthals. Their brains were at least as big as ours, they had tamed fire, and they displayed respect for their dead. They were also tall and considerably stronger and more thickly boned than we are, with barrel chests ideal for heat retention. Their pale skin maximized absorption of the meager sunlight—critical for making vitamin D—and their large, often blue, eyes helped them see in caves and in the low light of a European winter. They were obligate carnivores (that is, they needed meat), and they fashioned elegant and finely balanced hunting javelins, attaching flint heads to wooden shafts with an adhesive they prepared from the pitch of tree bark.
Neanderthals had an artistic streak, too, enlivening cavern walls with ochred outlines of their hands, hashtags, and a variety of abstract shapes. They drilled holes into seashells as though to make jewelry, and arranged snapped-off stalactites into elaborate ring-like and possibly sacred structures up to twenty-two feet across. But life was hard, and there were never more than 70,000 Neanderthals in Europe at any given time. By 41,000 years ago, Neanderthal populations were in sharp decline, and soon afterward they went extinct—in part at the hands of another immigrant group, modern Homo sapiens.
Or so the usual story goes. Flannery makes a plausible case that Neanderthals didn’t truly die off, and that it wasn’t modern humans from Africa who took over and colonized Europe. Based on bone and DNA evidence from an important site near the Iron Gates on the Danube River in Romania, Flannery suggests that a “chance encounter” in the area some 38,000 years ago allowed Neanderthals and humans to essentially hybridize, and that these “very special bastards” are the ones who spread through the subcontinent and displaced any unalloyed Neanderthals in their way. He points out that Ice Age Europe was a forbidding environment, and that tropical hominids would have had trouble outcompeting residents adapted for the cold. But through hybridization, the merging of genetic and cultural novelty from Africa with local adaptations and survivalist skills, a new brand of European arose who soon swept everyone else aside.
Gene-sequencing studies have shown that people of European and Asian descent today carry a small amount of Neanderthal DNA, less than 2 percent of their total genome on average. That may seem like an insignificant amount, but it’s not the same 2 percent from one person to the next: taken together, up to 40 percent of the Neanderthal genome lives on. Recent research links lingering Neanderthal DNA sequences to variations in hair and skin color, sleep patterns, moodiness, and susceptibility to illnesses like diabetes and Crohn’s disease. Intriguingly, the modern Y chromosome, which determines maleness, appears to be completely free of Neanderthal DNA.
Human–Neanderthal hybridization may help explain the astonishing artistic revolution that soon swept through Paleolithic Europe: the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet in southern France and Altamira in northern Spain, bone flutes, ivory carvings of human–lion chimeras, Venus figurines with their bulging breasts and vulvas. Flannery explores Paleolithic art in some detail, and I was disappointed by his unquestioning acceptance of the idea that “the creation of Paleolithic art was a largely male activity,” much of it a form of early graffiti that is “earthy and familiarly human, making the minds and culture of our distant ancestors readily accessible.” Accessible to whom? The thoroughly modern he-man?
I wish Flannery had mentioned recent scholarship on the Venus figurines, which argues that the elaborately carved representations of head coverings, string skirts, and bandoliers show signs of a female hand. And what about those child- and woman-sized handprints that tattoo the surfaces of various Stone Age ateliers? As the scholar Ellen Dissanayake has observed, the act of “artifying” in traditional cultures is not the province of men alone, but rather a joyous communal affair.
With humans fully established in Europe from the Pleistocene onward, their impact on the natural world would soon rival a force of nature. As the climate warmed and the ice retreated, habitable land opened up that should have invited waves of new large grazers and their predators—but the skill of human hunters kept many megamammals at bay. Even before agriculture, people were recasting ecosystems on a large scale, burning grasses to promote new growth and attract desired game animals, for example. And then came planned planting and animal domestication, most importantly of the cow. European civilization, Flannery says, was built on the back of a heifer, and he reminds us that Europe was named after Europa, the “cow-faced” one, who mated with Zeus in his guise as a white bull. Further enhancing Europe’s love for cows was the rapid spread through the population of a genetic trait for lactose tolerance, which allowed people to digest fresh milk, cheese, and other calorie-rich dairy products.
Carnivores that threatened livestock were persecuted mercilessly, none more so than the wolf; the fourteenth century, when the Black Death killed off nearly two thirds of Europe’s human population, was a golden era for wolves. Interestingly, another phenomenon of the Middle Ages helped protect other forms of wildlife. The tradition of caccia medieval restricted the hunting of many game animals to landowners and their families, and commoners were barred from large game reserves, a few of which remained in place through World War II. By the first half of the twentieth century, however, “almost every available scrap of land” not given over to leisure “was being squeezed for every ounce of productivity it could yield,” and the European population had soared to 400 million. The natural part of European history appeared to be nearing an end.
Yet nature is persistent, even mulish. Today, Europe’s population approaches 750 million, our feckless burning of fossil fuels is warming the climate at thirty times the rate of the changes that melted the great ice sheets about 21,000 years ago, and Europe is heating up faster than the global average. Flannery understands the threat that climate change poses to Earth’s biodiversity, but he also offers reasons for hope. With most people now living in cities and along the coasts, nature is reclaiming the interior land they’ve abandoned. Wolves and brown bears were nearly extirpated by the mid-twentieth century, but today there are more of them in Europe than in the contiguous United States. Seals sun themselves on London’s Canary Wharf. Wild boar roam the streets of Rome. The Iberian lynx, the largest carnivore unique to Europe, was tottering on the rim of extinction just fifteen years ago. Today, thanks in part to an intensive conservation and reintroduction effort, five hundred of the magnificent cats now hunt rabbits in the forests of Spain and Portugal. “Europe is once again becoming a wild and environmentally exciting place,” Flannery says.
Yet more can and should be done. Flannery describes a number of rewilding projects in various stages of development, and he discusses the difficulties of determining how much restoration should be left to nature, and how much demands some human tinkering—through captive breeding and reintroduction programs, the culling of excess or undesirable animals, creating artificial islands, and the like. He also addresses recent widely touted efforts to resurrect extinct species like the woolly mammoth through DNA technology. As Flannery sees it, such a Spielbergian prospect demands that we first sort out what we mean by “wild,” and which era of Europe’s long natural history we’re hoping to recreate. Does it make any sense, in a warming world, to resuscitate a shaggy behemoth from the Ice Age? On the other hand, Flannery suggests that, if the reforestation trends continue, Europe might do well to consider importing other megafauna that once called the subcontinent home, including rhinos, elephants, and lions. Why expect Africa to make room for the world’s remaining giants, he asks, if Europe won’t do it, too?