A forgotten continent, once located in the region now encompassing the Balkans and Anatolia, has been unearthed by a team of French, American, and Turkish paleontologists and geologists. The team, led by researchers from the CNRS Paris Michelangelo Delegation, made this groundbreaking discovery. Their findings challenge the previously established map of colonizations and migrations of species that existed 50 million years ago. Termed “Balkanatolia,” this ancient land was inhabited by a remarkably unique fauna.

According to scientists, this landmass facilitated the colonization of Europe by Asian mammals around 34 million years ago. The detailed results of this discovery have been published in Earth Science Reviews. During the Eocene period (55-34 million years ago), Western Europe and Eastern Asia existed as two separate continental masses, each characterized by distinct mammal faunas. The forests of Europe housed an endemic fauna, including paleotheres (an extinct group distantly related to modern horses but more akin to tapirs). Meanwhile, Asia boasted more cosmopolitan faunas, encompassing mammal families still present on these two continents today. Approximately 34 million years ago, Western Europe witnessed the influx of Asian species, leading to a significant transformation of vertebrate fauna and the extinction of its native mammals—an event known as the “Big Cut.”

Intriguingly, fossils discovered in the Balkans indicate the presence of Asian mammals in Southern Europe long before the “Big Cut,” suggesting a prior colonization. CNRS researchers have provided an explanation for this paradox by scrutinizing previous paleontological discoveries, some dating back to the 19th century. They have reevaluated these findings in light of current geological data.

This examination has unveiled that, for a significant portion of the Eocene, the region corresponding to today’s Balkans and Anatolia possessed a homogeneous terrestrial fauna distinct from that of Europe and Eastern Asia. This exotic fauna included, among others, marsupials with South American affinities and anthracotheres (large herbivorous mammals resembling hippos) previously found in Africa.

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