Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Transylvania, the geographic equivalent of slow glass

(Slow Glass definition here).

Funny old place, Transylvania. Time seems to move a lot more slowly there than it does here.

Sure, the obvious candidates are things like the Romanians who dug up a corpse and ate its heart because they thought it was a vampire’s body, or the Romanian priest who killed a nun during an exorcism. While I’m sure I could find equal barbarities in rural Texas, I doubt any of them have been practiced for centuries the way the Romanian examples did.

More broadly, it seems that Transylvania has a way of keeping creatures around for a lot longer than anywhere else.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to track down the exact citation (perhaps Tudge’s Time Before History?), but I recall reading about the discovery of a cave bear skeleton in the Romanian mountains. It was estimated that the cave bear died there around 2000 years ago. Considering that most cave bears died out ~26,000 years ago, that’s an unusually long survival.

If we go farther back, though, things begin to get really interesting.

Around 100 million years ago, the continents were differently shaped. Where southern Europe is now was the Tethys Sea. And where part or all of Transylvania is now was an island. Well, many islands, but there was one in particular, centered around modern-day Hateg (45° 36' 27" N, 22° 57' 0" E), which is of special interest to us.

The island was part of an archipelago of islands, with at least 200 km (124 miles) of shallow sea separating the islands from each other. The size of this island isn’t known for sure—anywhere from 7500 square kilometers (4600 sq. miles, roughly 68 miles by 68 miles) to 100,000 square kilometers (62137 square miles, or around 250 miles by 250 miles)—and is, like so much else in palaeogeography, a matter of controversy.

100 million years ago was right in the middle of the Cretaceous period, so, yes, the island had dinosaurs. And in fact a substantial fossil record has been found in and around Hateg. It’s the fossil record that is of interest.

(Well, that, and the fact that the first discoverers of the fossils were Ilona Nopcsa and then her brother Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (1877-1933). Franz was one of the great pulp-era characters, because there weren’t a lot of other velvet-cape-wearing, flamboyantly gay paleontologists/spies/guerrillas and would-be Kings of Albania who could compete with him. I’ll be doing a post just on Franz sooner or later).

Hateg Island was essentially untouched for roughly 35 million years, which means that the creatures who lived there evolved in isolation. As is often the case with creatures on small-ish islands, the trend was toward dwarfism–with the limited resources that an island has to offer, it makes sense to be small rather than large.

Hateg Island had dwarf dinosaurs, most roughly 10% the size of their mainland kin: a 15 ft long hadrosaur, a 6 ft long “dwarf iguana,” an 8 ft long ankylosaur, a 9 ft long megalosaurus, an 8 ft long dino-alligator, 4 ft long dino-turtles, pterosaurs, and 6 ft long Velociraptor-like carnivores, the latter being the island’s apex predator.

What is of most interest here is not just the dwarfism, but the fact that many of these creatures were not just unique to Hateg Island, but they existed there for tens of millions of years after their mainland counterparts had gone extinct. Yes, Hateg Island was the real-life Dinosaur Island.

Dinosaurs lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else. Cave bears lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else. Belief in vampires lasting a lot longer in Romania than anywhere else.

Neanderthals lasting in Romania longer than anywhere else? Vampirism as a pseudo-genetic memory of carnivorous Neanderthals? The skull found in Romania supports the Neanderthal-human interbreeding theory. Perhaps the children that resulted from the interbreeding were seen by ordinary humans as Wrong, and that’s what we now remember as vampires?

No comments: