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Book Review: The Last Lost World

The Last Lost World: Ice Ages, Human Origins, and the Invention of the Pleistocene

by Lydia V. Pyne & Stephen J. Pyne

Viking Press, 2012

The Pleistocene was the last geologic era prior to the present one, an epoch stretching from roughly 2.6 million years ago to roughly 12,000 years ago and typically characterized in the popular imagination by two things: its slightly sloppy nickname of “The Ice Age” and its mind-blowing population of megafauna. For many science nerds, Pleistocene megafauna have always been just about the coolest conceptual subset in the entire universe – all the allure (and giganticism) of dinosaurs, only with fur. There were vicious flightless birds that stood fifteen feet high; there were ungainly quasi-camels that also stood fifteen feet high; there were vast, lumbering ground sloths that could haunch-sit seventeen feet high; there were beavers the size of taxicabs; there were six kind of rhinos, each nearly as big as present-day elephants; there were cave-bears twice the size of a modern grizzly; there were sabertooth lions, wild bulls and elk twice the size of any moose, proto-dogs as big as tigers, mastodons, giant hyenas. There were woolly mammoths.

In short, what kind of taunting caitiff would dare to produce a book about the Pleistocene that has no pictures?

The answer: veteran science-writer Stephen Pyne, aided (or is it abetted?) in this case by his daugher, Lydia V. Pyne. These two have written The Last Lost World, a new book about the Pleistocene that has not one ‘artist’s conception’ painting of a drooling auroch or a gorilla-sized lemur or an owl bigger than a golden eagle. The book has no illustrations of any kind; it’s like the great diorama-artist Charles Knight lived and died in vain.

It’s lucky for readers that Stephen Pyne is such a fantastic writer he could make a block of ice interesting (he literally did this, back in 1986’s The Ice: A Journey to Antarctica, duly reviewed by yours truly for the scrappy, intrepid Daily Iowan). He and his daughter dig right into the subject of the tumultuous, fascinating Pleistocene and do such a lively, bang-up job of it that readers stop remembering to be upset that they aren’t looking at full-color Elasmotheria.

At the heart of the story, as might be expected, is ice:

While the material matrix had its hard and soft parts, ice was the geologic glue that held them together. What made the matrix mobile was the fact that the ice could not only come and go but, as water, transmute from solid to fluid, and could force even seemingly rigid features to bend and buckle. In short, Earth made ice, and then ice remade Earth.

Our authors trace those brutal fluctuations as the lost centuries march by (they also trace the way modern human geological investigation has shaped and reshaped the very concept of the Pleistocene – Sir Charles Lyell, bless him, is all over this book), the glacial and interglacial periods continually shuffling the deck of life-forms until, like the climax of a cheap thriller, Something Happens:

The Ice Age whipsawed species into and out of existence. But it ended by segueing into one of the great eras of extinction in Earth history. The episode reaches from the last glaciation to the present; this time, however, the interglacial did not restore variants of the lost species but continued, first wiping out megafauna, and then flora and fauna generally. Like a long oceanic wave that steepens into a tsunami as it approached land, the wave of extinctions has quickened as it nears the present.

The resounding gong that might very well have set that tsunami in motion was the eruption of Mount Toba on Sumatra somewhere between 73,000 and 71,000 years ago. As our authors put it, “The eruption of Mount Toba was a monster” – it sucker-punched the planet’s climate, plunging the Earth into a near-constant winter for six years and casting a freezing-cold shadow over the next thousand years of weather. Plants died out; whole landscapes were altered, and one more thing: Homo sapiens, genetically adapted to the “tropical refugium” of Africa, very nearly went extinct. Some estimates put the remnants at forty individuals, and God only knows what dark alchemy was worked on the genetic potential of those bitter survivors. What happened after that close call is plain from the paleological records:

A rapid radiation of sapients from Africa ensued, like the creatures loosed from Pandora’s box. It first stirre around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago with an amelioration of geographic conditions before spilling out of Africa, and it quickened around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago as some new feature seemed to amplify human firepower. By 55,000 years ago sapients had overrun southern Asia and crossed into Sahul and Australia. By 35,000 they had punched into Europe, tracking the receding ice and crowding the Neanderthals. By 20,000, the height of the glacial maximum, they had crossed Beringia into North America. By 10,000 they had reached the southern tip of South America. They had spread with the implacability of a plague or the Norway rat, filling up one new island or continent after another. Even as the Pleistocene melted into the Holocene, they were still probing and pushing.

That mention of amplified human firepower reflects the fact that the human who survived Mount Toba were different from the Homo sapiens who’d lived before. Our authors are carefully judicious about whether this alteration was genetic or cultural, but they’re emphatic about its import:

What did such a capacity bring? It allowed refinements in the technologies of stone, bone, and wood; better language, communication skills, and social organization; an appreciation of beauty; a talent for manipulating symbols; an interest in ornamentation; an imagination capable of devising and testing ideas as evolution did mutations. An anatomically modern human could make spearheads to hunt; a behaviorally modern human could paint hunting scenes on the walls of caves. To simplify a log of waffling jargon, the change sparked a mind that could produce art and, later, science.

Readers of books on prehistory will be familiar with this kind of cheerleading – and perhaps comforted by it. Art, and later, science, yes – but these things weren’t new: Neanderthals had the beginnings of both, and probably a few other ancient species of hominids did too. Anatomically modern humans could make spearheads to hunt; behaviorally modern humans could make a vast surplus of spearheads and plot in elaborate detail how to use them. Anatomically modern humans could use advanced communication skills to coordinate a hunt that could bring down a woolly mammoth that would feed and clothe the entire tribe for weeks. Behaviorally modern humans could devise stampedes and drop-falls designed to wipe out whole herds of woolly mammoth at a time – and then carve little choice bits from the carcasses, leave the rest, and do it again.

The Pynes have written a lively, inviting book about the geological era that gave birth to the current world, and they’ve been for the most part bracingly honest (that comparison to the Norway rat isn’t an isolated instance). But they stop short of actually saying what the paleological record fairly shouts: what emerged from that Mount Toba change was something new in the history of the world: a deranged species, a type of hominid with an advanced capacity for art and science, yes, but also a bottomless craving for genocide. In the post-Toba expansion, everywhere that Homo sapiens went, all megafauna, all fauna, almost all flora, certainly all other hominid species – all life promptly disappeared. And we’re not talking mysterious, Bermuda Triangle-style disappearance: we’re talking about mountains of animal bones chipped by those new, improved stone and bone weapons. We’re talking piles of Neanderthal skulls with holes smashed in them not by the ravages of time but by a newly resurgent species of human that wanted to kill not just the Neanderthals competing with them for food but every single Neanderthal in the world.

The Pleistocene gradually gave way to our present era, where, as the Pynes point out, that tsunami of extinction only continues to gain strength. Mankind is the cause, and only those animal species mankind has enslaved have any measure of protection (although if they were given the option, battery hens and veal calves might opt for the cleanliness of extinction). Even the mighty ice itself seems imperilled, at the mercy of the havoc humanity is wreaking on the planet. The Last Lost World is acutely observant of the many ways the idea of the Pleistocene has been formed and re-formed over last 150 years, serving almost as a secular mythology for geologists. Readers can wonder (and maybe hope not) if some future age will have a similar book about the barren, brittle mythology we’re living through now.