Vintage Dinosaur Art: Pangaea, The Mother Continent

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Pangaea, The Mother Continent is one of the most unusual books that has ever found its way to me. It has done so by way of Grant Harding, who sent the scans to me, so full props to him. It came out in 1989, a great year for dinosaurs. It was witten by Karen Liptak and illustrated by Susan Steere. Susan Steere is another one of those mysterious figures who can’t be found on Google. As far as I can tell, her only books are this one and a similar one about coral reefs called The Reef And The Wrasse. Apparently, she is an anthropology professor with a background in theatre and art. A true Renaissance person, by the sound of it.

This book is a most interesting and unusal blend of the esoteric and the scientific. The concepts of Pangaea and the Earth itself are personified in a way that is kind of hippy-dippy, but at the same time the palaeontological content of the book is fairly typical, lively but informed Natural History For Kids fare. The formation, existence and dissolution of Pangaea is the thread that binds it all together, so the book starts in the Devonian and ends in the Jurassic, though the Cretaceous is given a short consideration as well. And then there’s the illustrations.

Susan Steere’s illustrations are all in this wonderfully naïve style. Real outsider art vibes. All standards of scientific accuracy have to go out the window in order to give this art a fair shake, although these Dinichthys aren’t too bad. It’s hard to judge if Steere is a true naïve illustrator, whithout much in the way of artistic background, or if this is a carefully honed style. I imagine the truth will be somewhere in the middle. It’s hard to think of much palaeoart in such an unapologetically outsider style, apart from, of course, the work of our beloved Great Aunt Marie. That, along with the idiosyncratic themes, makes this book highly unique.

Steere’s most detailed illustrations are these full-page ones which illustrate the fauna of every period in time from the Devonian up to the Jurassic. A white, feaureless human silhouette, made of negative space, waiting to be filled, is always included somewhere. It is as if Steere invites the reader to imagine themselves there, among those fantastical creatures.

Here is a quirky take on the major event of the Devonian: early tetrapods taking to the land. There is a definite comedic note about the wide-eyed terrestrial fish, and its aquatic brother looking on disapprovingly, as if to say: life on land, it will never catch on. Our glassy-eyed ancestor is undeterred by both him and what looks like the skeleton of another fish that tried. In a fit of irony, Eusthenopteron was probably much more aquatic than Ichthyostega in reality, but scientific accuracy isn’t really the game that this book plays. I love the startled springtails. It’s all quite cute.

Let’s have a Carboniferous. You can see here how Steere, despite the deceptively simple style, makes complex and well thought out compositions. I like the curly ferns. How does she manage to make Arthropleura this cute?

There’s definite cartoon vibes to the Dimetrodon, which looks on evily at Edaphosaurus, minding its own business. I love the colour scheme on this Dimetrodon, which returns a few times, as well. Edaphosaurus, with its long neck and reptilian face, has a strangely dinosaur-like vibe, and the distinctive shape of its sail has not been done much justice.

Triassic weirdness! The bizarro bestiary of the Triassic fits Steere like a glove, though she has again taken great liberty with the actual look and anatomy of the animals. Icarosaurus in bright yellow pops out the most, seemingly armless and, if the white silhouette is meant to be true to scale, bizarrely gigantic. The red-headed Scaphonyx (now considered to be the rhyncosaur Hyperodapedon) and the seemingly quilled Cynognathus are also highly suspect. Then, in the water, there is Rutiodon, lacking all the features that make phytosaurs so distinctive but turning out quite distinctive all the same in this pointy-snouted guise. Tanystropheus‘ famously overlong neck has been somewhat undersold.

Here be dragons! This ichthyosaur reminds me a bit of drawings of whales on vintage maps. The ornamental ammonites and shrimp complete the picture.

Okay, let’s have some dinosaurs! This Plateosaurus scene, with two juveniles checking out a turtle, is pretty cute. It’s always a bit surprising to me how instantly recognizable Plateosaurus is, and how well its shape translates to a simple, naive style like this. Maybe Timur is right and Plateosaurus is a more iconic dinosaur than it’s given credit for. The outdated quadrupedality is easily forgiven.

Here is the biggest dinosaur scene in the book, and the dinosaurs here fare considerably worse than the charming plateosaurs above. Steere’s sauropods look very dumpy and ponderous on their stubby legs and their necks just aren’t long enough. The black one can only barely reach those palm leaves. The big Allosaurus, oddly hidden behind that tree, is very much an old-school, upright Godzillasaur, like Gwangi but a lot skinnier. I do like the funny upturn on its snout, giving it some crocodylian charm. The one that jumps out at me in a positive way is the Archaeopteryx, which looks intriguingly like something out of the Nazca lines.

Look at how cool and creative this one is! It’s a top-down view of a bunch of sauropods, allosaurs and stegosaurs that really stands out in the book. Here, I feel that the funny cartoon style really works well and really gives the scene a sense of motion and narrative. You can see this one moving, you can see it all play out. There’s almost a cave art vibe to this, even if prehistoric humans never knew dinosaurs and never drew their animals top-down like this.

This is the only bit of Cretaceous reconstruction we get, as now, Pangaea has truly fallen apart and the scope of the book ends. It covers maybe a quarter of a full page, but, boy howdy, does Steere give us something to work with here. I am, of course, contractually obligated to mention Tyrannosaurus fist. This one does have a more modern, horizontal stance compared to the Allosaurus and fares relatively well in that regard. This was the year of The Land Before Time, in which the T. rex still walked upright. On the other hand, I see once more a theropod with a very humanoid looking chest and shoulders. Also horizontal but inevitably more dated are the Deinonychus with their adorably angry, wonky faces. Maiasaura seems to have been confused with Corythosaurus or some other crest-bearing hadrosaur. Triceratops seems to be a cross between a rhino and a lion, its frill looking a bit like a mane. The tiny, sketchy Pteranodons (sic) are just delightful.

And that’s Pangaea, the Mother Continent. It’s pretty clear to me that it plays a different game to most books of prehistory. No attempt at realism or scientific accuracy is made, opting instead to show the world of times gone by as dreamlike, whimsical and fantastical and inviting us to look at it with childlike wonder. I can’t help but be slightly annoyed when some of these reconstructions don’t really do the animals justice, but then I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way. It sure is a breath of fresh air among the serious, Sibbick-copying books of the time and it certainly stands out, and in its way it feels like somewhat of a spiritual successor to Verdwenen Werelden, even if it isn’t half as ambitious. Becasue it is so different from all those other 80s books, it somehow feels more timeless, too. Cheers to Susan Steere, renaissance person!

Next time: It’s December! Something nostalgic, perhaps?

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  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    December 10, 2021 at 12:22 pm

    There’s a fine line between ‘stylised whimsy’ and ‘plain bad’ that this mostly stays on the right side of. That Edaphosaurus is bafflingly weird, though; I think it’s the limbs as well as the head and misshapen sail that make it look dinosaurian. Not a fan of neckless dromaeosaurs, either. Other than that, it’s quite fun.

  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    December 10, 2021 at 12:25 pm

    Oh, and pretty sure that Allosaurus is based on one from that 1950s book I mentioned in the last podcast

  • Reply
    December 11, 2021 at 3:07 pm

    Great find, Niels! This one reminds me of So Long Ago, by E. Boyd Smith (reviewed at the old site by David Orr on 2010 July 02).

  • Reply
    Grant Harding
    December 13, 2021 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks so much for covering this book! (I also like the pair of Gerrothorax doing water ballet in the Triassic scene.)

  • Reply
    George Starr
    December 26, 2021 at 11:59 pm

    This is a brilliant book for the purity of its own odd vision. As you mention, it doesn’t try to be a Sibbick-clone. Instead Liptak and Steere commit to something organic and charming (and wonderfully bizarre). Outsider art is a very apt description Niels. I’m an unabashed supporter of scientific accuracy in books about science that are aimed at children, but there’s also enough room in my heart for books like this one. Gotta love that chimney-headed juvenile brachiosaur. Liptak’s caption for Steere’s cute plateosaur image “A mother plateosaur and her youngsters stop to investigate a proganochelys” is truly lovely, and is in such stark contrast to the ubiquitous dinosaurs-as-macho-monsters trope. Thanks for featuring this unique book.

    Happy Holidays and best wishes in the New Year team Chasmosaur.

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