Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds - book cover
Science & Math
Biological Sciences
  • Publisher : Random House
  • Published : 01 Feb 2022
  • Pages : 416
  • ISBN-10 : 0593132882
  • ISBN-13 : 9780593132883
  • Language : English

Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth's Extinct Worlds

"A kaleidoscopic and evocative journey into deep time" (Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature), from the Ice Age to the first appearance of microbial life 550 million years ago, by a brilliant young paleobiologist

"This is as close to time travel as you are likely to get."-Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

The past is past, but it does leave clues, and Thomas Halliday has used cutting-edge science to decipher them more completely than ever before. In Otherlands, Halliday makes sixteen fossil sites burst to life on the page.

This book is an exploration of the Earth as it used to exist, the changes that have occurred during its history, and the ways that life has found to adapt―or not. It takes us from the savannahs of Pliocene Kenya to watch a python chase a group of australopithecines into an acacia tree; to a cliff overlooking the salt pans of the empty basin of what will be the Mediterranean Sea just as water from the Miocene Atlantic Ocean spills in; into the tropical forests of Eocene Antarctica; and under the shallow pools of Ediacaran Australia, where we glimpse the first microbial life. 

Otherlands also offers us a vast perspective on the current state of the planet. The thought that something as vast as the Great Barrier Reef, for example, with all its vibrant diversity, might one day soon be gone sounds improbable. But the fossil record shows us that this sort of wholesale change is not only possible but has repeatedly happened throughout Earth history.

Even as he operates on this broad canvas, Halliday brings us up close to the intricate relationships that defined these lost worlds. In novelistic prose that belies the breadth of his research, he illustrates how ecosystems are formed; how species die out and are replaced; and how species migrate, adapt, and collaborate. It is a breathtaking achievement: a surprisingly emotional narrative about the persistence of life, the fragility of seemingly permanent ecosystems, and the scope of deep time, all of which have something to tell us about our current crisis.

Editorial Reviews

"Thomas Halliday's debut is a kaleidoscopic and evocative journey into deep time. He takes quiet fossil records and complex scientific research and brings them alive-riotous, full-colored, and three-dimensional. You'll find yourself next to giant two-meter penguins in a forested Antarctica 41 million years ago or hearing singing icebergs in South Africa some 444 million years ago. Maybe most important, Otherlands is a timely reminder of our planet's impermanence and what we can learn from the past."-Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature

"Deep time is very hard to capture-even to imagine-and yet Thomas Halliday has done so in this fascinating volume. He wears his grasp of vast scientific learning lightly; this is as close to time travel as you are likely to get."-Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

"Otherlands is one of those rare books that are both deeply informative and daringly imaginative. It will change the way you look at the history of life, and perhaps also its future."-Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future

"An absolutely gripping adventure story, exploring the changing vistas of our own planet's past. Earth has been many different worlds over its planetary history, and Thomas Halliday is the perfect tour guide to these past landscapes and the extraordinary creatures that inhabited them. Otherlands is science writing at its very finest."-Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins: How the Earth's History Shaped Human History

"Full of wonder and fascination, exquisitely written, this book is time travel of spectacular dimensions-a journey into our planet's evolution and the world in which we live. It's a compellingly important read."-Isabella Tree, author of Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm

"This outstanding debut by an award-winning paleaontologist . . . transports us enthrallingly close to Planet Earth as it used to be. . . . Each chapter immerses us in a different landscape from the geological past, and demonstrates that extinct ecosystems have much to teach us."-The Bookseller (Editor's Choice)

Short Excerpt Teaser


The House of Millions of Years

‘Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within'

-Oodgeroo Noonuccal, The Past

‘What tempest blows me into that deep
ocean of ages past, I do not know'

-Ole Worm

I am looking out of the window, across farmland, houses, and parks, towards a place that for hundreds of years has been known as World's End. It has this name because of its past remoteness from London, a city that has now grown to absorb it. But not too long ago this really was the end of the world. The soil here was laid down in the last ice age, a gravelly mixture deposited by rivers that once flowed into the Thames. As the glaciers advanced, they diverted its course, and the Thames now enters the sea more than 100 miles south of where it used to flow. From the ridged hills, clay crumpled by the weight of ice, it is possible, just about, to mentally strip away the hedgerows, the gardens, the streetlamps, and imagine another land, a cold world on the edge of an ice sheet extending hundreds of miles away. Below the icy gravel lies the London Clay, in which even older residents of this land are preserved – crocodiles, sea turtles, and early relatives of horses. The landscape in which they lived was filled with forests of mangrove palm and pawpaw, and waters rich in seagrass and giant lily pads, a warm, tropical paradise.

The worlds of the past can sometimes seem unimaginably distant. The geological history of the Earth stretches back about 4.5 billion years. Life has existed on this planet for about four billion years, and life larger than single-celled organisms for perhaps two billion years. The landscapes that have existed over geological time, revealed by the palaeontological record, are varied and, at times, quite other to the world of today. The Scottish geologist and writer Hugh Miller, musing on the length of geological time, said that all the years of human history ‘do not extend into the yesterday of the globe, far less touch the myriads of ages spread out beyond'. That yesterday is certainly long. If all 4.5 billion years of Earth's history were to be condensed into a single day and played out, more than three million years of footage would go by every second. We would see ecosystems rapidly rise and fall as the species that constitute their living parts appear and become extinct. We would see continents drift, climatic conditions change in a blink, and sudden, dramatic events overturn long-lived communities with devastating consequences. The mass extinction event that extinguished pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and all non-bird dinosaurs would occur 21 seconds before the end. Written human history would begin in the last two thousandths of a second.

At the beginning of the last thousandth of a second of that condensed past, a mortuary temple complex was built in Egypt, near the modern-day city of Luxor, the burial place of the pharaoh Ramesses II. Looking back to the building of the Ramesseum is a mere glance over the dizzying precipice of deep geological time, and yet that building is well known as a proverbial reminder of impermanence. The Ramesseum is the site that inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem ‘Ozymandias', which contrasts the bombastic words of an all-powerful pharaoh with a landscape of what was, when the poem was written, nothing but sand.

When I first read that poem, I had no knowledge of what it was about, and mistakenly assumed Ozymandias to be the name of some dinosaur. The name was long and unusual, and it was hard to figure out a pronunciation. The descriptive language used in the poem was that of tyranny and power, of stone, and of kings. The pattern, in short, fitted that of my childhood illustrated books about prehistoric life. At ‘I met a traveller from an antique land who said: two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert ', I thought of a plaster jacket being applied to the remains of some terrible beast from prehistory. A true tyrant lizard king, perhaps, now broken into bones and fragments of bones in the badlands of North America.

Not all that is broken is lost. The lines ‘on the pedestal these words appear: "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains.' might be seen as time having the last laugh over a self-important ruler, but the world of that pharaoh has been remembered. The statue is evidence of its existence; the content of the words, the details of its style, clues to its context. Read like this, ‘Ozymandias' gives us a way to think about fossilized organisms and the environments in which they lived. Take out the hubris, and the poem can be read as being about finding the real...