In ‘Otherlands,’ a Look at Life on Earth Before the Mass Extinction Event

Lee Polevoi


Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds

By Thomas Halliday

Random House

385 pages


What was life on Earth like 550 million years ago? Until recently, it would have been nearly impossible to speculate with any accuracy on anything so distant in the past. These days, with advances in paleontology and evolutionary biology, we have a far better-informed answer to this question.


In his new book, Otherlands: A Journey through Earth’s Extinct Worlds, paleontologist Thomas Halliday offers a close-up, in-depth survey of life on our planet, long before mankind came along and started bending natural laws to its will.


Through a close study of fossil records, Halliday describes what day-to-day existence must have been like for plants and animals, beginning with the Pleistocene ice age, then moving backwards in time through different geologic epochs.



It's a colorful survey of life before the mass extinction event, based on extensive studies and the use of ever-improving technology. Halliday is careful to note that the contents of his book are “grounded in fact, either directly observable from the fossil record, strongly inferred, or, where our knowledge is incomplete, plausible based on what we can say for sure.”


Otherlands is comprised of 16 chapters, each centered on a specific locale (Africa, Alaska, Chile, Antarctica, and elsewhere) and geologic era (Pleistocene, Cenozoic, Mesozoic, etc.). The result is a deep dive into life on Earth millions of years ago, which in turn provides a deeper understanding not only of long-ago planetary conditions, but of the nature of time itself:


“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 minute. 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 minutes before the end. Written human history would begin in the last tenth of a second.”


There’s no question that Halliday, a professor at the University of Birmingham and a scientific associate of the Natural History Museum in London, is a gifted writer and someone who knows what he’s talking about.



At times, however, the author’s approach, with its full-scale descriptions of primeval flora, fauna, and environmental conditions, is thorough almost to the point of exhaustion. This approach—not less is more, but more is more—runs the perilous risk of overwhelming readers with details sometimes difficult to visualize and absorb:


“Proboscideans are certainly diverse in Kanapoi. There is not just Loxodonta adaurora, closely related to and barely distinguishable from the African elephant, but also Elephas ekorensis, a cousin of Indian elephants and mammoths. Among the trees strut stately, short-legged Anancus with their long, straight, forklift-truck tusks that almost reach the ground, and unlikely Deinotherium, whose short tusks curve backwards and are used to scrape bark from trees.”


Otherlands is a densely composed and ambitious piece of science writing. It’s also a rich, imaginative portrait of Earth’s earliest days, as expertly speculative about prehistoric times as one can imagine being within the confines of a single book.


Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, and the author of two novels, The Moon in Deep Winter, and The Confessions of Gabriel Ash, forthcoming in 2023.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Needpix (Creative Commons)

--Mauricio Anton (, Creative Commons)

--Random House


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