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Originally published Sunday, August 12, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'The Last Lost World': How the Pleistocene era shaped human development

Lydia Pyne and Steven Pyne's new book, "The Last Lost World," looks at the Pleistocene era, from 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago, and how its unusually cool climate shaped human history.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Last Lost World:

Ice Ages, Human Origins,

and the Invention

of the Pleistocene'

by Lydia V. Pyne

and Stephen J. Pyne

Viking, 320 pp., $26.95

Like any group, geologists divide and subdivide their world. Central to this splitting is time, with eras, periods, epochs, and ages, such as Mesozoic, Cretaceous, and Maastrichtian. Each delineation in time is marked by some geological or paleontological event.

Of all the various subdivisions of geologic time, none is more unusual than the Pleistocene, the epoch that lasted from about 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, write Stephen Pyne (author of "How the Canyon Became Grand" and "Fire: "A Brief History") and his daughter Lydia (who teaches at Drexel University) in their new book "The Last Lost World."

What makes the Pleistocene special is the uncommon climate of continent-covering ice sheets (a rarity in the Earth's 4.5 billion-year-long history) along with the evolution of humans. These two events "identify a break, a rift, not only in geologic time but in how that chronology is understood. They tear the seamless web of history," the Pynes write. And in shredding that web, it has forged a new way to view the world.

That new way arises in part from the origins of modern science. For example, Louis Agassiz's reliance on scientific evidence for his development of the idea of ice ages helped replace religion as a driver of our understanding of Earth's past. Agassiz's work, in turn, helped pave the way for what we call deep time, the millions and billions of years of Earth history, which in turn was critical for Charles Darwin's thinking about natural selection and evolution.

In weaving their tale of this intersection of people and geology, the Pynes open an intriguing window into science and how we consider it. However, the density of facts, terminology, and ideas, many of which could be better explained, prevent the story from flowing forward and make "The Last Lost World" a challenging read.

Seattle author David B. Williams'

book "Cairns: Messengers in Stone"

will be published this fall

by Mountaineers Books.

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