A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Prehistoric survival skills included more than just a knack for starting fires. Until the oversized beasts known as megafauna went extinct, our ancestors had to learn to survive on a landscape populated with creatures like sabre-toothed tigers, oversized eagles, and plodding giant sloths. A new documentary, Land of Lost Monsters, offers a gripping take on the giant animals that both gave our ancestors fodder for campfire tales and kept prehistoric life expectancy down. Though its computer animated beasts, particularly the large cats, are sometimes cartoonish, Land of Lost Monsters pulls off one of the best accounts of ancient life to appear in recent years.
The documentary begins with brief vignettes showing how our predecessors coped with megafauna. In Africa, an australopithecine is savaged by a giant cat. Ice Age Europe is the scene of an ambush set for unsuspecting mammoth by wily Neandertal hunters. (Some viewers may recognize footage recycled from at least two previously aired BBC programs. The Neandertal vs. mammoth scenes come from Walking With Cavemen and some of the megafauna have already starred in Prehistoric America: A Journey Through the Ice Age and Beyond.)
But Land of Lost Monsters doesn't really hit its stride until it begins to follow three small bands, who we are told are the first people to set foot on Australia, North America, and New Zealand. The conceit is a good one, giving us the chance to see strange new animals through the eyes of ancient people also encountering them for the first time. Surprisingly, the human acting is excellent. The Aborigines, Native Americans, and Maori who stand in for their ancestors create characters who are fully believable, even sympathetic, all without the benefit of dialogue.
While well-grounded in science, Land of Lost Monsters is not above relying on classic horror movie conventions. It's packed with terrifying moments: a Paleoindian dies at the claws of the terrifying, 2,000 pound short faced bear; an ancient Australian succumbs to the poisonous saliva of a megalania, a 16-foot-long lizard; and the first woman to explore New Zealand is cut down by the giant Haast's eagle, a 30-pound bird with a nearly nine-foot wingspan.
But we humans gave as good as we got. The program points out that our ancestors were eventually responsible for the mass extinction of megafauna, creatures as diverse as the giant cats of North America and the moa, New Zealand's giant flightless bird. Here the documentary skirts around a major scholarly debate. While the quick eradication of the doomed moa at the hands of humans is clearly visible in the archaeological record, the evidence for over-hunting of beasts like North America's mammoth is less clear cut. Some point to the shifting ecological conditions at the end of the last Ice Age as the main cuprit in the mass extinctions. But Land of Lost Monsters is at heart a prehistoric nature special, not an exploration of scientific theories, and the narration doesn't address the ambiguity of the archaeological record.
While it goes to great lengths to emphasize the dangers posed by megafauna, the program has its lighter moments too. Australia's first arrivals are at first terrified by the sight of the diprodont, a relative of the modern wombat and the biggest-ever marsupial. But they soon realize the creature is slow moving, dim witted, and dangerous only by virtue of its dramatic flatulence, which the band finds hilarious. As Polynesian settlers whistle at the strange birds that inhabit New Zealand's forests and stunned Paleoindians gaze at a valley teeming with mammoth, Land of Lost Monsters reminds us that human fascination with strange beasts predates Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom by thousands of years.
A co-production of Animal Planet and the BBC Natural History Unit, the program airs April 27 at 8 PM ET on Animal Planet.