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Good Reads  Palaeontology  Palaeozoology & Extinctions

Beasts Before Us The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution

Popular Science
By: Elsa Panciroli(Author), Marc Dando(Illustrator), April Neander(Illustrator)
328 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations
Read our Q&A with Elsa Panciroli. Engaging and beautifully written, Beasts Before Us is a spectacular debut that tells the story of early mammal evolution.
Beasts Before Us
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  • Beasts Before Us ISBN: 9781472983985 Paperback Jan 2023 In stock
  • Beasts Before Us ISBN: 9781472983824 Hardback Jun 2021 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
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About this book

Read our interview with Elsa Panciroli.

For most of us, the story of mammal evolution starts after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, but over the last 20 years, scientists have uncovered new fossils and used new technologies that have upended this story.

In Beasts Before Us, palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli charts the emergence of the mammal lineage, Synapsida, beginning at their murky split from the reptiles in the Carboniferous period, three-hundred million years ago. They made the world theirs long before the rise of dinosaurs. Travelling forward into the Permian and then Triassic periods, we learn how our ancient mammal ancestors evolved from large hairy beasts with fast metabolisms to exploit miniaturisation, which was key to unlocking the traits that define mammals as we now know them.

Elsa criss-crosses the globe to explore the sites where discoveries are being made and meet the people who make them. In Scotland, she traverses the desert dunes of prehistoric Moray, where quarry workers unearthed the footprints of Permian beasts from before the time of dinosaurs. In South Africa she introduces us to animals, once called 'mammal-like reptiles', that gave scientists the first hints that our furry kin evolved from a lineage of egg-laying burrowers. In China, new complete skeletons reveal mammals that were gliders, shovel-pawed Jurassic moles, and flat-tailed swimmers.

Beasts Before Us radically reframes the narrative of our mammalian ancestors and provides a counterpoint to the stereotypes of mighty dinosaur overlords and cowering little mammals. It turns out the earliest mammals weren't just precursors, they were pioneers.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A spectacular debut
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 7 Jun 2021 Written for Hardback

    Given that we are nothing but mammals, it is perhaps understandable that humans are rather mammal-centric. But where palaeontology is concerned, dinosaurs get all the love. And that, says Scottish palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli, does early mammals little justice. Far from mere bit players cowering in the shadows of these "terrible lizards", mammals have a long and rich evolutionary history that predates the dinosaurs but is poorly known outside of specialist circles. Panciroli's debut changes all that and does so in a most readable and immersive fashion.

    To pick up the tale of mammal evolution, Panciroli takes you all the way back to the Carboniferous (roughly 360-300 million years ago). It was here that the first fish made landfall and tetrapods evolved. To get from this distant ancestor to modern mammals, you have to follow the story through groups whose names are likely unfamiliar.

    Thus we get to meet the synapsids, one of which you will know: the sail-backed, no-it-is-not-a-dinosaur Dimetrodon. Synapsids included the pelycosaurs (also not dinosaurs), which gave rise to the therapsids: carnivores with more powerful jaws and a stronger bite. Some of these, including the gorgonopsians, pioneered sabre-teeth, proving later groups to be mere copy-cats. Convergent evolution is, quite literally, a recurrent theme that Panciroli mentions whenever she can get away with it. Various therapsids were also the first groups to evolve endothermy or warm-bloodedness, though "like so many of the features associated with mammals [it] emerged scattershot. It wasn't switched on like a lightbulb, lighting up all therapsids at once" (p. 120).

    As the end-Permian mass extinction wiped the slate clean, the age of reptiles had begun. But some of our mammal ancestors survived. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes were, amongst others, the dicynodonts, whose faces combined tusks and a beak. One particularly successful group, possibly because it dug burrows, was Lystrosaurus, a genus that in the early Triassic made up 90% of all vertebrates. A related group, the cynodonts, is largely responsible for the misconception that our ancestors were insignificant during the reign of the dinosaurs, as they evolved to be smaller. But this was a feature, not a bug: "With no space among the giants, they took a different route: they perfected being tiny" (p. 163). They exploited the safety of the night, became nocturnal, and developed sensitive eyes. They also lost some ribs and developed a waist, allowing for more flexibility in their locomotion – early synapsids had ribs all the way down.

    The Jurassic saw groups such as tritylodontids, docodontans, and multituberculates flourish. As their names imply, these groups experimented with tooth morphology, which later became important diagnostic fossil characters. None of them left living descendants. Instead, it was the therians who were our direct ancestors, but they did not diversify until after the K-Pg boundary. Interestingly, Panciroli suggests that it was not the dinosaurs that kept the therians in check, but competition from all the other Jurassic mammal groups. This more recent history of the adaptive radiation into modern marsupials and placental mammals is well known, so she purposefully ends the book where most others start the story.

    This brief exercise in name-dropping provides only a snapshot of what Panciroli discusses, and she does a far better job of it. She weaves in the history of fossil discovery and her own work at dig sites in South Africa and Scotland, or labwork at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France. Next to telling the story of mammal evolution, Panciroli also takes on the task of disarming and deconstructing a large amount of cultural and linguistic baggage, with two issues standing out.

    First, as part of a younger generation of scientists, Panciroli is keen to decolonise her discipline. This means acknowledging that the scientific collections on which she herself works are the spoils of empire. Our museums are filled with colonialist plunder. Especially in the first chapter, where she gives a potted history of geology and biology, she repeatedly points to the imperialist framework in which these disciplines were born and how that has shaped conventions and biases to this day. Celebrated figureheads simultaneously held ideas now considered unsavoury, and they rarely credited Indigenous knowledge or help in the acquisition of fossils. Furthermore, as a woman, she has a few things to say about diversity. Like many academic disciplines, palaeontology remains largely populated by white, Western men, and it has been hard to shake off the image of the "stereotypical male adventurer" and his "macho plundering of the past" (p. 249). Fortunately, the contributions of women are increasingly being acknowledged, and Panciroli here celebrates Polish Mesozoic mammal researcher Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska.

    Second, the long history of evolutionary theory means that outdated modes of thinking continue to permeate our language. She shudders at the term "mammal-like reptiles" still used to describe the synapsids: "This first amniote tetrapod was neither mammal nor reptile – neither of those groups had evolved yet" (p. 61). We did not evolve from reptiles, nor are they more primitive compared to us. Panciroli similarly uses every opportunity to remind you that evolution is not goal-directed: "It is random, the route forged by happenstance" (p. 57). It has proven hard to let go of the Scala Naturae, the idea of a linear series of improvements, "like an assembly-line through time" (p. 120) leading ultimately to the perfect organism: us.

    This neatly leads to my last observation: Panciroli's writing is sublime. Her prose is concise without being stunted, her visual metaphors rich without being flowery. Of the late Triassic mammals she writes: "These tiny ancestors were living microchips. They were night-vision goggles. They were fuzzy little ninjas, wielding shuriken teeth to reap their insect prey in silence and stealth" (p. 171). On the break-up of Pangaea: "After their epic 250 million-year snuggle, the continents of Earth were parting ways [...] By the end of the Jurassic, the whole world was unzipping itself, with new seas and oceans splashing into the gaps" (p. 203). And on the K-Pg event: "The universe drew an iridium line under things. From here on, life would be different" (p. 274).

    Beyond a few academic textbooks and technical monographs, the deep evolutionary history of mammals has remained largely hidden in the academic literature. Beasts Before Us unleashes their story most spectacularly and engagingly. This beautifully written debut marks Panciroli as a noteworthy new popular science author. May this be the first of many books!
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Elsa Panciroli is a palaeontologist who studies the evolution and ecology of extinct animals – particularly mammals from the time of dinosaurs. She is a researcher based at the University of Oxford and an associate researcher at the National Museum of Scotland. Elsa has published multiple papers in academic journals, and her work takes her around the world collaborating with scientists in China, the US, South Africa and Europe to understand the origin of major animal groups.

Elsa is a keen science communicator and travels extensively across the UK delivering public talks on palaeontology and the origin of mammals. Her freelance writing includes extensive articles for online and print publications, including monthly pieces on topics in evolution and palaeontology for The Guardian, and educational articles for Palaeontology Online and Biological Sciences Review. She is a graduate of the BBC's Expert Woman training programme, and frequently contributes to radio and podcast programmes, such as Crowdscience, The John Beatty Show and Our Lives.


Popular Science
By: Elsa Panciroli(Author), Marc Dando(Illustrator), April Neander(Illustrator)
328 pages, 8 plates with colour & b/w photos and colour illustrations; b/w illustrations
Read our Q&A with Elsa Panciroli. Engaging and beautifully written, Beasts Before Us is a spectacular debut that tells the story of early mammal evolution.
Media reviews

"Smart, passionate and seditious"
The New York Times Book Review

"A pioneering study . If you thought it all began with the extinction of the non-bird dinosaurs – think again."

"Under Ms. Panciroli's adroit tutelage, the Carboniferous and Permian (pre-dinosaur) periods are brought to life [...] she regularly enlivens this surprisingly readable book with quick and often humorous observations."
The Wall Street Journal

"Fascinating [...] filled with as many weird and wonderful creatures as any reptilian tale [...] there's much here to intrigue."

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