South Africa: On Geological Timescale and Travelling Backwards


Gazing across the wild, rolling nothingness of the Kalahari or the ramparts of the Drakensberg, have you ever wondered how that bit of scenery got there? To a geologist the answer is all in the name, but ask her to elaborate at your peril.

The film Jurassic Park, based on Michael Crighton's extraordinary 1990 novel, gave us accessible dinosaurs and spawned an industry in cuddly T-Rexs, Dino Babies and fierce plastic models essential to every toybox. While the name Jurassic has remained in everyone's verbal toolkit ever after, few knew what it meant other than some time very long ago.

In truth, it's still a puzzle. Try asking anyone who knows their geological timescale and you'll soon be confounded by Eras, Periods, Epochs, a blizzard of strange names ending in -zoic, -cene, -ian or worse, and mind-numbing depths of time. I had the timescale on my wall for years and never managed to master it.

Recently I found out why: it's chaotic, anarchic, nationalistic and a battleground of scientific ideas. And to you and me the names don't mean a thing. How do you get your head around titles like Cenozoic, Oligocene, Ordovician or Holocene? The only one that makes...

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