Everyone is so caught up in today’s time period; things that have only happened within the last 50 or 60 years at most. But you never really hear people comparing modern times to that of two or three thousand years ago, or one or two million years ago, do you? Why? Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about the mammoths and terror birds, and other amazing, extinct creatures that lived during previous geological periods? Is it because not enough people know about them (probably, right)? If that’s the case I’m really happy we can enjoy science festivals and marches in today’s times. That oughta ignite that innate longing for discovery and knowledge that science represents.
To me, personally, science is a tool from which I learn about reality. I can’t go a single day without wondering what life might be like on other planets or what it will take for humans to ultimately inhabit other planets. These are the big steps as well as the big questions. Don’t make the questions too big, though, as you might find yourself overwhelmed and give up with fear and doubt clouding you. Although questions of the future get anyone excited questions of the past are also…interesting. The questions I’ll be reflecting on now are ones related to life in the most recent time periods: the Quaternary period and Neogene sub period of the Tertiary period. Actually, what the hell, I might throw in the Paleogene too. People just don’t know what they’re missing when it comes to natural history!
A Different World
To all my late 80s and early 90s sitcom watchers the “different world” I’m referring to is not the one with Jasmine Guy, ok? Haha. It’s a completely different world where countless events haven’t occurred yet; a world where humans don’t rule the earth. In much of the time during the Pleistocene humans had already or began evolving to contemporary form and had left other hominids behind. But if you go back just another four million years or so you’ll get to the Ardipithecus Kadabba (recently discovered in 1997) who lived during the Pliocene. This means that you would see human-like animals walking around in Africa who look more like a half and half mixtures of chimpanzees and modern humans than modern humans alone. Indeed a different world than we know today.
Mind you, this is not a lot of time; geologically speaking of course. But this is a lot of time for us to imagine. Religions such as christianity have been quoted saying that the entire earth is only 6,000+ years old. And the reality is that earth is more than 4.5 billion years. So roughly 11,000 to 5.3 millions years shouldn’t really be considered a long time, but, to us, it’s an overwhelmingly long amount of time to our humble minds to envision. Perhaps that should tell you where we are on our current evolutionary journey. Either way the world was similar, but different.
Another big difference between the Holocene and the past two epochs is the fauna. Wildlife of the past two epochs have been quite ferocious and different than what we know today. You might think of a lion or tiger and think to yourself “what could be worse than that?” But that’s because you aren’t considering the Terror Birds of South America, Smilodons, or Bear Dogs of Eurasia to name but a few. Other, bigger animals were in charge during these times. Who wouldn’t soil their paints if they ever saw a pack of smilodons or mammoths chasing them?!
Yet another one of the greatest differences between then and now would have to be the climate. You can’t talk about the Pleistocene without bringing up the last ice age!
Surprisingly enough carbon levels haven’t always been as low as they are now. That’s right, low! In past geological periods they’ve actually been much higher. The Cambrian has been estimated to reach numbers around 6,000 ppm and when the dinosaurs were last seen in the Cretaceous the average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached around 1,500 ppm. Today we panic over carbon levels that are around 407.05 ppm like the entire world is going to end. Well, actually we panic more because of the amazing rate at which levels are increasing, not the actual number. If you look on a graph of how much greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, have increased in the atmosphere in the last two hundred years or so you’ll see a sharp uptick towards the 1960s and onward to today. This kind of change and short sightedness for time is what causes the discomfort in today’s society when it comes to climate change. But actually, is it really all that bad?
During the ice ages of the Pleistocene glaciers extended as far as the 40th parallel. That’s about where I am now here in Philadelphia. The earth was also roughly 5 degrees celsius cooler than it is now. Yet hominids kept truckin’. Truckin’ to survive and thrive as we crossed the Bering Land Bridge to explore the Americas some 20,000 years ago. We adapted to our environments and even beat out other hominids who also existed during that time. To all my Philadelphians out there and those above the 40th parallel in the USA be honest with yourself. How would you fare in a frozen world where most of the technology we know today is nonexistent? I hope my readers aren’t cowards (albeit realists) and assume they wouldn’t make it. Our ancestors did.
To be honest it kind of amuses and saddens me when people talk about contemporary issues. People need to realize that it’s good to be present and all, but there is way more to life on this planet than the 90s or healthcare reform. There have been countless stories of survival across eons that have not been shared with the likes of the general public that people may even doubt completely because they are not aware of the vast amount of time that has passed. So use this article as a humbling tool to help you understand the history of life and your place in it. We are ultimately just a blip in the infinite expanse of time in the universe.