Life Before Man

LifeBeforeMan On my last trip up to Yorkshire I found one of my favourite childhood books, Life Before Man, by Zdenek Burian (pictures) and Zdenek V. Spinar (text), published in 1972 by Thames and Hudson. I bought this when it first came out and it entranced me for years.

Nowadays photorealistic dinosaurs are de rigueur, thanks to Jurassic Park (1993) and TV series like Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) but in the 60s and 70s making prehistoric beasts come to life was a real challenge. Films went for two approaches to the problem – either using stop motion rubber models (Valley of the Gwangi (1969) and A Million Years BC (1966)) or gluing fins onto real lizards, poking them with a stick and filming them in slow motion (The Lost World (1960) and Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)). They also tended to mess things up historically by introducing women who ran about screaming and spraining their ankles mid-flight, as was required by the artistic sensibilities of the time. Only the Stravinsky sequence in Fantasia (1940) came anywhere near a decent attempt at scientific accuracy.

A gala dinner held inside a wildly inaccurate dinosaur in 1853

Artists had been trying to recreate the beasts since Victorians fell in love with the monsters in the middle of the 19th century, though first attempts came up with some spectacular errors. Most famous of these was the sculpture of the Iguanadon intended for Crystal Palace gardens. The artist knew the monster had a spiky bit but was at a loss where to put it, so he stuck it on the end of the creature’s nose (it belongs on its thumb). He also made it four-legged, not bipedal, though this did help when a gala dinner was held inside the mould in 1853.

The obligatory Tyrannosaurus Rex
The obligatory Tyrannosaurus Rex

Zdenek Burian’s paintings were revolutionary because of their obsessive attention to detail, and the almost near-photographic execution. Many of them are also ‘action shots’ rather than the rather dull static images of the day. Scientific discoveries have rendered some of the images inaccurate, his biped dinosaurs appear to walk like humans dragging big tails, rather than like birds with their rear ends stuck out for balance. Yet both his dinosaurs and their surroundings appeared completely believable, so much so that one foil-hatted UFO-hoaxer used Burian’s picture of Pteranadon as a ‘photograph’ proving he’d journeyed back in time with the help of his alien chums.

Burian's painting of a Pteranodon used as photographic 'proof' of Billy Meier's time travel.
Burian’s painting of a Pteranodon used as photographic ‘proof’ of Billy Meier’s time travel.

Life Before Man is also remarkable for the sheer number and scope of the pictures. The book is chronological and spans prehistory from the cratered volcanic wilderness of 4600 million years ago, through the Precambrian all the way through to the Quaternary era and the New Stone Age. Not only does it show prehistoric monsters in all their glory but also the rise of the mammals, and eventually the different stages of man’s evolution.

Neanderthal man makes something to poke Homo Sapiens with.
Neanderthal man makes something to poke Homo Sapiens with.

After the dinosaurs the mammals are a bit dull; big cats, hairy elephants and odd looking rinoceri, but Burian comes into his own again with wonderfully evocative images of early people engaged in various prehistoric pursuits such as Chipping Flints or Pointing at Things and Grunting in Alarm. Here the quality of the images is patchy, but when he’s at his best you could believe you are looking at portraits of living beings. Here’s his rendition of Homo Erectus from half a million years ago.

Homo Erectus (Peking Man)
Homo Erectus (Peking Man)

Sadly Life Before Man is currently out of print but stray copies occasionally appear on Amazon.

Here’s a link to Billy Meier’s website in which he answers accusations that the photo of a Pteranodon he took while time travelling was simply a copy of Burian’s painting. He backs up his argument with a letter from Ptaah the Plejaran of the Andromeda Council who blames it on Quetzal, another alien, for going off on one and stealing all the original negatives.



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10 responses to “Life Before Man”

  1. Lorijo Metz Avatar

    Reading (actually listening to) Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, his exposé on scientology. Sounds like Billy Meier and L. Ron Hubbard have a lot in common (i.e. huge imaginations). Anyway, the art in “Life Before Man” if not always accurate, is at least gorgeous.

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      That’s a coincidence. I got a copy of Going Clear for my birthday shipped from the States. It hasn’t been published here because of UK libel laws, though interestingly Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah, a biography of Hubbard, was published here by Sphere back in 1987. What always strikes me about people like Billy Meier and Raël is that their aliens seem very dull. I want armour-clad intelligent arachnids with blasters or methane breathing three-headed lizards, instead all we seem to get is a set of rather bland space hippies preaching cosmic harmony and sensual meditation, usually with the founder of the cult. To be fair, at least Hubbard’s Xenu the Galactic Tyrant had a bit more oomph about him.

  2. Jane Dougherty Avatar

    I missed this post. Must try and get hold of this book, I’d have loved it when I was a kid. Then I’ll travel back in time a few years so I can really enjoy it.
    I was listening to a scientist discussing the possible/plausible appearance of ‘alien’ life forms, and he reckoned that any higher intelligent (for intelligent read human-like) life form would probably look almost exactly like us. We seem to have hit it just about right in terms of limbs, eyes, carriage etc. Shame.

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      It’s a lovely book and impressive in its scope. I used to spend hours looking at it as a kid and trying to copy Burian’s pictures myself. I’m not sure whether we do represent the optimum configuration for intelligent life though, surely we look the way we do because we are descended from apes. If we’d come down from the same branch of the tree as, say, cats then I would have thought we’d look significantly different – like Larry Niven’s Kzinti for example 🙂

  3. Jane Dougherty Avatar

    I think that’s the point, that intelligent life descended from an ape-like creature rather than a cat. Walking upright, using hands, having two eyes set forward in the head, two ears, all that is a better recipe for universal success than having beautiful stripes, a long tail and no hands. Cats, dogs, reptiles and birds have either stopped evolving or have let apes outstrip them because the ape mix of abilities is better. I personally like the way many dog species sort themselves out, but they didn’t make the final cut unfortunately.

  4. Henry Psanec Avatar

    A wonderful article! I’m always happy when I see “foreigners” who love Burian.

    If I may correct one thing: the picture which you described as Tyrannosaurus rex is actually Tarbosaurus bataar, T-rex from the same book is here:

    Here’s a link to a second-hand bookshop where they have a lot of Burian’s prehistory books – sadly very few in English, but one buys those more for the pictures anyway:

    If you happen to make a trip to Brno, there is a museum here called Anthropos which hosts a permanent exhibition of Burian’s paintings.

    1. John Guy Collick Avatar
      John Guy Collick

      I’ve been to Brno – but I’d no idea there was a museum with Burian’s paintings. Next time I visit I will definitely go and have a look. Thank you for the recommendation!

  5. Henry Psanec Avatar
    Henry Psanec

    You have? Oh, that is splendid! I hope you liked it here, I love my hometown.

    Yes, among the many museums and other things (such as me and my soft toy Tigger) Brno also hosts this pavilion, a part of the Moravian Museum, located ca. 15 minutes by tram from the centre. Here’s a link including the Burian exhibition (cameras allowed!),

    and here’s a link to many photos from the museum:

    Its replicas of the cave art are something exceptional. I saw there the original of the Venus of Velké Věstonice in 2009 and last year also an incredible exhibition of Aboriginal art (which is in the museum’s depository). Should you wish to see what that was like, here are some photos:

    Closed on Monday, be careful of that.

  6. John Guy Collick Avatar
    John Guy Collick

    Thanks Henry, I will definitely check these out the next time I’m there.

  7. John Guy Collick Avatar
    John Guy Collick

    Henry – I was in Brno on a short business trip and managed to grab an hour to visit the Anthropos museum and see the Burian exhibition downstairs. Very impressive – the paintings of early man are excellent, and make you think they could only be painted from life. It was interesting to see how Burian had developed the look of one of the species (Peking man, I think) from the skull.

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