Goanna Dreamtime

Komodo dragonMonitor lizards, otherwise known as varanids (genus Varanus) or goannas (in Australia), are carnivorous lizards found in Africa, Asia, Australia, and many archipelagos and island chains. Until recently some species were thought to possess toxic bacteria, but now we know they have amounts of weak venom, used to help down large prey. Monitor lizards have existed for millions of years, closely related to the extinct mosasaurs and the venomous goanna-like Estesia mongoliensis (Norell, McKenna & Novacek, 1992). Their modern-day relatives include the beaded lizard, Gila monster, and earless monitor. The largest species is the “infamous” Komodo dragon (Komodo Island Monitor, Ora), a 6.5 to 10-foot lizard first discovered in 1910 (by Western scientists).

Nile monitorBeginning with African monitors: I could see large wandering land monitors like Megalania or similar to terrestrial crocodiles. They would likely be scavengers or opportunistic feeders, snatching what they can for themselves or from other predators. Specialized forms may develop, like burrowing monitors feeding on insects such as crickets, ants, and termites. Or maybe, instead of a burrower, a semi-aquatic swimmer that hunts fish and insect larva. The burrower would be a descendant of the savannah monitor (Varanus exanthematicus) and the swimmer would be a descendant of the Nile monitor (Varanus niloticus). In my opinion, Australasian monitors will be much more diverse.

The “goannas” or Australasian monitors have a much more interesting future ahead of them. I don’t see an ant-monitor, simply because there will be mammalian ant-eater equivalents such as echidnas or numbats, although their numbers have declined quite a bit. I’d like to see large 14-foot terrestrial monitors charging around after flightless birds and kangaroos except they have re-refined their venom glands to be able to kill effectively. In the Australasian forests, arboreal monitors will find haven, perhaps even semi-gliding monitors chasing after birds (bats and other birds will probably prevent this). In mountainous regions, the more derived circulatory system of monitors might allow them to become fishers if mammals do not take advantage of the niche.

My final idea is the development of semi-aquatic marine monitors along the coasts of Australia, New Guinea, and nearby islands. They will resemble long-necked monitors will adaptations of crocodiles and the prehistoric nothosaurs. They will not be fully marine, having to return to land to lay eggs. The best prey item will be fish and seabirds and maybe invertebrates.


Future Proboscideans

African bush elephantProboscideans are an ancient order of mammals that have existed since the Tertiary Period, 50 million years ago. Over the span of this group’s history, they have included moeritheres, deinotheres, gomphotheres, mastodons, mammoths, and elephants. Today, only 3 species of elephants remain: 2 African and 1 Asian species. Elephants are massive beasts; the largest nowadays can be as tall as 11 feet and can weigh 11 tons. Many have tusks, the ivory of which has resulted in the deaths of numerous elephants. In recent times, these amazing animals have been threatened by poaching with conservation be rather limited in some countries. One must wonder if these wonderful giants will survive after our demise?

Being such large animals, I fear that their survival will depend on isolated environments such as forested valleys and islands. Areas that fit into this description include East Africa (after separating from the mainland of course), Indonesia, the Himalayas, north Africa and the Mediterranean (after colliding). If populations from elephant sanctuaries and zoos are able to breed and populate foreign regions than there could even be American elephants (or elephants just about anywhere else where they are kept captive).

Borneo elephantThe niche that any future elephants would fit into is most likely to be varied browser (grass and foliage). If a North American population develops, I could see Asian elephants becoming hairy American neo-mammoths, sharing the plains with wild donkeys, giant mule deer, wolf-like coyotes or foxes, lion-like cougars, and huge peccaries. Young Asian elephants are already quite hairy, so I don’t see why hairy adults wouldn’t occur. In their native Asia, I could see Stegodon-like elephants in southeast Asia but logging and semi-domestication have done a good deal to their populations. (In an ironic twist, the elephants themselves are used to take down the forest they call home.) Just as well, they could become dwarves but dwarf elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) already exist.

Loxodonta rangeIn East Africa, where I predict the line will make its last stand, similar adaptations will be made (as in longer tusks like Stegodon or smaller body size as in many dwarf mammoths and elephants). To be honest though, it is being quite optimistic to say that elephants will come out of the human age clean and free but if they do there will be a period in which their populations will boom as a result of no pressure from humans. After a while though, they would level out in numbers and reach a temporary equilibrium until even more changes effect the world they live in, such as an ice age or some sort of major floral extinction (not quite as likely as an ice age). Later on I will discuss what groups of animals might replace elephants in a series on “new megafauna”.

Part 2: The Rise of Man?

Woolly mammoth-cro-magnon encounterFirst, let us study Neanderthal technology. Neanderthals had soft Mousterian hammers which they used to make stone-flakes, hand axes, and spears (for thrusting, likely not projectile spears). Materials they used included wood, bones, antlers, and eventually some stone by the end of their timeline. It has been suggested that they only inherited much of their more advanced technology and thus in comparison to their human neighbors, they were less sophisticated. Technology was a part of why humans were able to drive their cousins to extinction, so without pressure they could have developed similar technology but at a slightly slower pace. I doubt they would reach our modern technology by this time and perhaps they might have never reached it (as the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines never developed as advanced technology as groups of the same species in other places of the earth).


Next up: Would the Neanderthals have domesticated wildlife and developed means to cultivate species of plants? I think in certain areas there is a possibility that they might go through the same steps as we did to reach civilization. Perhaps in some Middle Eastern river valley, a population of Neanderthals might use the seasonal floods of the region to develop agriculture and eventually an advanced civilization as did the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Chinese. What they domesticate is purely speculative. Some of our domesticated and semi-domesticated animals are former prey or predators of our ancestors. Possibly, these Neanderthals might domesticate the mammoths and deer they once drove to death. They may even develop religious beliefs or deities based on the behemoths.

With civilization comes culture, so if Neanderthals create civilization then they will likely have an advanced culture. I can’t say if they will have art, music, and literature just as we do because there is no evidence of them ever exhibiting anything related to the three. Cave art is purely limited to the Cro-Magnons, so the possibilities for them having art and, at some point, a written language, is quite hard to predict. First they would have to have an oral language and drawn pictures. Then they would start associating the spoken word with the drawn picture and the picture would evolve into a symbol and so on. I think that with a civilization and culture, they would eventually have a system of hieroglyphics. (see Neanderthal language for more info)
Neanderthal religions? As far as a Neanderthal religion(s), I think there is evidence for the start of such a step to higher society. Neanderthal burial sites show some signs of care for the dead as well as grave goods suggesting more advanced and even religious burial could have come in the future (maybe not to the extent of entire Pyramids). A Neanderthal religion, I believe, would either develop into a spiritual one (the earth and animals both play important roles as in the Native American and Shinto religions) or one more similar to the Egyptians or Hindus (in which animals play key roles and are even worshiped to some extent). They would also have some form of afterlife if they give burial goods to the dead. Deities would likely relate to natural themes such as specific animals who represents certain things to the Neanderthal people (such as fertility, agriculture, death, life, war, etc.).

Now, all these developments are not expected to be made by the Neanderthals themselves (Homo neanderthalensis) but perhaps by some descendant of the species that is slimmer, more agile, and more intelligent and human-like but not exactly us.

Part 1: The Rise of Man?

Neanderthal ChildFor my first post, I have decided to discuss a topic recently brought up on my Hypothesis Project forum: what if humans (Homo sapiens) never evolved and the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) continued to exist up until modern times? Would they have evolved into a new, more advanced species or would they have remained the same yet with a more evolved culture? First of all, the Neanderthals were very adept to cold, northern environments during a time where those sorts of areas were highly available. I am unsure that these thick, robust beings would continue to exist with the ice age ending and temperatures warming. Would it be possible for them to adapt to a warmer climate? I would say yes. Although most specifically adapted for cold regions, they are found as far as the Middle East and Spain, suggesting that they might not need the ice for survival. It is often theorized that our own species wiped out the Neanderthals, either through competition, some disease, or “absorption” by interbreeding. Without the human factor, the Neanderthals could have taken the leading role as the dominant hominid or could have gone extinct even without human interference.
Let’s take the first possibility: Neanderthals survive and humans never appear. Several questions must be considered: will they radiate outwards to other regions of the earth, will they encounter other species of Homo such as H. erectus, will they remain hunter-gatherers or will they domesticate wildlife and plants for their own specified usage, will they remain simple, possibly ritualistic beings or will they develop civilization to some extent, and how might they effect the fauna of this world devoid of human beings?
Beginning with the first question, will they radiate outwards to other regions of the earth? I believe yes. Our own species managed to spread from Africa to Eurasia, Australasia, and the Americas before even developing civilization. Starting from Europe, I predict that they would have spread across northern Asia and then the Bering Strait to North America. I think the spread to the “southern” continents will take longer, starting with Africa and then Australia, perhaps even South America. Now will Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis ever meet? Probably not. A majority of H. erectus populations were declining by the time we appeared and if this “hypothesis” were to follow the same timeline, by the time Neanderthals would reach southeast Asia (the last stronghold of the “upright” race), their cousins would already have been extinct.
Neanderthal culture and civilization to be studied in the next part of “The Rise of Man?”