Field Notes Part 3, Week 8: Zhoukoudian


To: Pia Schuster

From: Evelyn Willoughby

Subject: Winding down

Dear Pia,

In five short days, I’ll be with you again. Our sixteen months have been cut short, reduced to only six months. Of course I don’t blame Andi or myself or anyone else (with the possible exception of Mission Control) for this outcome. We planned for everything, but could not have prevented the cave collapse accident. Even with our greatest efforts, so much comes down to chance. Our luck has left us, but we’ll still return alive and relatively whole. That must be regarded as a success, no matter what.

Can I confess how desperate I am to return, now that the date is so near? I miss the taste of fresh fruits and vegetables. I miss the sound of traffic, the murmur of other human voices. I miss reliable electricity, I miss the Internet, I miss the conveniences of modern life. Most of all I miss you. Will your voice still sound the same? Will your hand find its comfortable place in my own? How much has distance changed us; how much has the past remade me? I was ready to be the leader of this mission when we left. Now, I am desperately eager to relinquish these responsibilities. I no longer want to weigh the risk of every action we take. 

Still, there’s no use wasting a final week in the Pleistocene. I’ve been collecting local weather data, helping Andi with a limited bio-blitz, investigating caves, albeit from a safe distance. There are so many things I still wanted to investigate: cave art among the Neanderthals, more advanced trade networks, family relationships among different species. But those things will be for another achroniologist to investigate; I doubt I will ever return to the past again.

It’s hard to make sense of my thoughts for the moment. There is the urge to collect more, see what we can while we’re here. It competes against indolence and a desire for relaxation. We have done so much already; surely a break is merited. Overriding all else is the need to see you, to tell you the thousands of things that cannot be conveyed in writing. I’ll hope for one last letter with your name on it before we depart. I am counting down the days, the hours. 

All my love,



To: Michael and Deborah Chang

From: Andrea Chang
Subject: The final stretch

 Dear Mom and Dad,

In less than 48 hours, I’ll be back in the 21st century again. Who knows, by the time you get this letter I might already be back, and you could be waiting for my call to tell you I’m safe and sound and super excited to eat some Taco Bell. We’ll be on quarantine for a week to be sure that we haven’t brought any Pleistocene bugs back with us, but you can be sure I’ll come to see you as soon as they let me out. Maybe I’ll even bring Evie! She’s heard so much about you, she says she feels like she knows you already. Don’t worry, only good things. How would you feel about a house full of guests?

I don’t have much of an update to give this week. We’ve been wrapping up our work, going on brief walks around the Mystery Box to see the last few sights, writing reports, disassembling traps and weather gear. If not for the cave collapse, this visit to Zhoukoudian could be called downright boring compared to the other places we’ve visited. I wish so much that we could’ve gone on to Flores to visit the “hobbits,” but I’ll manage to live with the disappointment. We had encounters with animals that are extinct in the 21st century! We met bands of Homo erectus! We hunted and fished and saw a world that looks nothing like our own. I went six whole months without drinking any Dr. Pepper! 

I know the Mission Control psychologists are going to give us a bajillion tests and make us reflect on the experience, and then I’ll be busy analyzing what we did collect, and getting my ankle all fixed up, and re-integrating into the world. But I think after all that—I could use a vacation. I just want to sit on a beach somewhere and close my eyes, and no longer worry about being eaten. 

Love you and see you soon!

Field Notes Part 3, Week 7: Zhoukoudian


To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Research and wellness updates

We have at least scene our first definitive glimpse of AsianHomo erectus. Following the end of the snow storm, Andi manually piloted the drone to search for any sign of life. After taking it on gradually widening sweeps of the area, she identified a long trail of footprints some nine kilometers from our location. She flew the drone as far as its range would allow, approximately 25 kilometers further. At the end of this secondhand journey, we spotted a thin cloud of black smoke creeping up from the hilly horizon. Although we did not locate the hominins themselves, these multiple signs offer proof positive of their existence. 

The weather being slightly warmer than the previous week, I ventured out on my own to investigate the footprints. Andi monitored from above with the drone, though I was also equipped with the usual chemical precautions we’ve successfully used against wild animals. The slog through such thick snow hampered my progress, but I found my way to the trail sometime in the early afternoon. 

Sunlight and increasing temperatures melted the depressions slightly, but I was still able to prepare the snow and make casts of a half-dozen footprints. The prints varied quite dramatically in size, suggesting that the walkers included children and adults. Much of the trail had been crossed by multiple walkers, so it was difficult to ascertain the size of the group, but I would hazard a guess that five or six were traveling together. Had Andi and I been together, we could have followed the trail for several more kilometers than spent the night away from the Dome. By myself, I chose the more prudent option of walking back before sunset. 

Our health remains good, though Andi still struggles to place any weight on her injured leg. The collapsible crutches have been useful for her to hobble around the Dome, but until more of the snow and the ice melt, she’ll be confined in here. I am still concerned over how her ankle is healing, but know that my concerns are of little consequence to the Mission Control staff. 

More updates to follow soon, along with the footprint casts.



To: Jun Nakamura
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Homecoming 

Hi Jun,

Prepare the welcome wagons, get ready for a media blitz, and clear out your social calendar, because—drumroll—we are coming home. One more week in the Pleistocene, then I’ll be back in modern America, ready to take on the real world. Or at least do lots of interviews and probably have ankle surgery, which is what Evie anticipates will be happening for the first month or so. 

I know you wouldn’t need to ask if I’m sad or disappointed because you know the answer is YES OBVIOUSLY, so I won’t waste any time spewing all my feelingson you. I’ll save that for when we’re together in person again, and can go out to dinner for hot pot and I’ll try not to embarrass you too much by getting all emotional in a crowded, noisy restaurant. Instead of worrying about what’s going to happen next or dissecting how I’m coping at the moment, let me take you on one last vicarious adventure. You didn’t think I could leave the past without having one final animal encounter, did you? 

Picture me, still partially hobbled by a clunky cast but increasingly adept at maneuvering with crutches. A warmer day, sunlight finally recharging the batteries of the Mystery Box and allowing us to take hot showers. I feel refreshed, rejuvenated, ready to leap back into field work. Evie is hesitant, she chews her cheek, she considers and requires some cajoling before she will relent and allow me back into the untamed wilderness. But the air is so sweet and clean after weeks in the Box, and the sky looks endless, and I can’t believe anything will go wrong on a short walk around the area. 

But what’s that just a short distance from the Box, ponderously lumping its way out of a dark cave? Could it actually be—the rare—the little understood—the Chinese cave bear? A black snout is highlighted by white snow! Four enormous paws! One HUGE bear, rising to its hind legs and staring straight at us!

Evie shrieks at me to hurry back into the Dome. She picks up a nearby rock, hurls it in the bear’s direction, pulls out her mace, and stands in front of me as I hobble my way to the safety, pulse already trying to pound clear of my throat. I make the door, turn back to see why she hasn’t followed me, already petrified, deciding if I should lunge at the bear—and I see Evie on the ground, toppled over with laughter. The stone, it seems hit the bear square in the nose, and it fell straight onto its ass before rolling over and grumbling its way right back into the cave. 

It was such a moment of relief and lightheartedness, Jun. Because we both knew it might have gone differently. And even though it didn’t, even though no one was hurt (except maybe the poor bear), we clearly understood an alternate outcome. That’s why we have to leave. It’s just too risky. 

Can’t wait to see you!

Field Notes Part 3, Week 6: Zhoukoudian

Week 6, DAY TWO

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Is this how it ends?

Dearest Pia,

I have always prided myself on my facility with writing. Spoken language is messy, unpredictable, and unfixable. How easy it is to say the wrong thing or be misinterpreted even when you’ve said the right thing! But writing: it is slow, methodical, clear. The sentences can be polished till the only ambiguities are those the writer chooses to leave behind. I like the heft of written words, and their pliancy—the way they’re warped by their neighbors.

But what good is this ability if I no longer succeed in persuasion? At this most crucial moment, my writing is not powerful enough to change the minds of its readers.

Mission Control refuses to send back further assistance for Andi. I set her ankle several days ago, with the help of local anesthetic. She experienced little enough pain, though noted the sensation of “crunchy bone splinters.” The swelling ought to be further reduced by this point, but it is not. This may mean torn ligaments or tendons—but how can I say without the proper medical equipment? It’s possible a trained professional would decide to operate and insert screws and plates; the fracture was fairly severe. Yet here, in the Pleistocene wilderness, I can do no more than realign the bones, brace the ankle with a makeshift cast, and supply Andi with ice, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories.

The weather has been cloudy for days. Our power supplies are running low. Electricity in the Dome comes entirely from solar energy and the sky has been too gray for adequate recharging. I anticipate a storm, even a blizzard, on top of everything else. Fewer chances for research outside, an increasingly cold space in the Dome. At least I have the use of both my legs.

Andi and I have gone back and forth repeatedly, as if we are riding a carousel and changing our minds with every revolution. We need to stay, she says at first. Our work isn’t done yet. We’ve barely made it through the first three locations—what about the Hobbits on Flores?

But your ankle, I respond. You won’t be walking for at least six more weeks. What about the dangers that face us? How will you respond if you need to run?  

She grows glum. You’re right. Screw it, we should leave early. This is stupid, the choice is obvious. I’d be putting both of us at risk.

How can I help but answer with encouragement? But your ankle might heal more quickly than you expect, and we can take precautions. We’ll be more careful in the future.

If only Mission Control would offer some guidance or assistance! But they’ve left the decision entirely in our hands, and support whatever we choose. I knew there would be difficult choices for this mission. I knew we might be injured, even killed. But knowing something in a classroom—even when that classroom is the 21st century wilderness—is not like knowing something 600,000 years in the past. I did not even truly know Andi at that time; we’d only lived together for training excursions. Now, she is the only other human in my world.

More than anything, I wish for your consolation and support. If you were here, the decision, I believe, would be clearer.

All my love,


To: Deborah and Michael Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: It’s not all bad

Dear Mom and Dad,

It’s been snowing for almost three days now. Inside the Mystery Box, our breath turns to fog. We’re both wrapped in blankets and our warmest thermal gear. Evie keeps doing jumping jacks and pushups and high-knees to warm herself up, then looks all guilty when she sees me sitting here on my tablet or with a sketch pad. I’ve been doing one-legged squats and lifting weights to keep my upper-body active, but that’s about all I can manage right now. Still, no reason for her to stop exercising. How could I be jealous or resentful of the person who saved my life? Would I even have been able to do the same if she’d tumbled down into that cave?

Things have been better, but they’ve also been worse. My ankle is finally starting to deflate a little bit. It’s cold, but the snow means some two-legged hominid might leave behind visible tracks when the blizzard clears. We have enough food for the rest of our stay in Zhoukoudian, and there’s no chance of getting chased by any megafauna now that I’m cooped up indoors!

I’m trying to stay on the positive side of things, but sometimes it’s a struggle. I’ve had setbacks in research before. That one time I got malaria wasn’t great. And then there was that run-in with gnathostomiasis. Parasites are nasty no matter their form, but to see something moving around under my skin like that—ughghh, it still makes me shudder just thinking about it. But even that debacle was easy enough to deal with once doctors realized what they were looking for. So that’s why you’ve had a fever and vomiting for several weeks! Well at least it didn’t get to your eye and cause a loss of vision.

Basically what I mean to say is that I’ve had close calls in the past, and they always turned out alright. But back then, I had the whole of human society to rely on. (Is it weird calling it the past when I’m living hundreds of thousands of years before then? Let’s not get wrapped in the chronology, I’m looking at this from the straightforward timeline of my own life.) Now it’s just me and Evelyn, and even though I trust her literally with my life, I also know she’s human and liable to error.

So here we are debating whether or not to come back early. I’ve been distracting myself by carving wooden tools. If I think too hard about the prudent decision, it makes me cry. I don’t want to go home yet! There’s so much more for us to see! But is it worth walking with a limp for the rest of my life?

For now, we’re waiting till the end of the blizzard. We’ll see what’s out there when the snow has settled, if we can find anything worth staying for. And then—who knows.

Lots and lots of love,

Field Notes Part 3, Week 5: Zhoukoudian

Week 5, DAY ONE

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Update on Andrea

The recovery mission, though long, was ultimately successful. Andrea spent approximately 48 hours in the collapsed cave before I was able to complete the rescue. She’s resting now and recovering from hypothermia. Following her return to the Dome, she drank warm electrolyte solution and worked on reheating her core with electric blankets. I also treated some superficial frostbite on her fingers, toes, and cheeks. Her left ankle is severely swollen and almost certainly broken, but I’m hesitant to attempt setting the bone without taking an x-ray or applying local anesthetic.

Will you send medication for a hematoma block and a portable x-ray machine in the next drop? Other supplies might be necessary as well; I will send daily updates all this week.

Let me make an addendum to that request: Andrea’s health would benefit immensely from someone with more medical training. If the original protocol is being followed, other scientists have been trained for using a Tipler Dome and are on standby for emergency missions. I can’t imagine a much more serious issue. Assistance from just one extra person might mean the difference between her walking normally or with a limp for the rest of her life. If this is at all a possibility, I strongly recommend attempting it.

My apologies for any disjointedness with this report. Between awaiting the arrival of the secondary Dome, rigging a system of lines above the shaft where Andrea fell in, removing all the debris around her, then descending to pull her out, there’s been little time for rest of my own. I will be taking time for my own recovery as soon as this report is sent off.

My own health is good, apart from exhaustion. No injuries sustained on the descent into the cave, no muscle strain in operating the winch or retrieving Andrea.

Weather has been cold and getting colder. No sign of hominin life. I can’t say when we’ll return to our field work, as it will depend largely on how soon Andrea is able to walk again.

Once again, I must emphasize how serious this situation is and how closely Andrea came to dying. If her ankle is to heal well, I would feel much more comfortable with a better-trained professional overseeing the process.


Week 5, DAY FOUR

To: Noelle Ng
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Irony is dumb

Dear Noelle,

Thank you for the science-inspired paper doll kit. No, I don’t think it’s a silly present—you’re limited to sending things back that fit inside a #10 envelope! And trust me, I need all the entertainment I can get. In the past three days I’ve reread all my favorite books, played about a dozen different card games with Evie, and sketched up a storm. Unfortunately the painkillers seem to affect my drawing ability almost as much as they do my concentration. I’d work on writing some reports, but I still can’t keep things straight from one sentence to the next.

Evie is peeved at Mission Control because they refuse to send someone else back to help with my ankle. Apparently none of the scientists on retainer have been following the iron-elimination diet to be prepared for a safe jump back in the Mystery Box, so we’re on our own. We’ve got an x-ray machine—yuuup, my ankle is totally busted—and some kind of fancy painkiller, so Evie is gonna try to fix me up tomorrow. Should be fun.

You know what’s the worst part? Besides now having regular nightmares about being buried alive in a cave? I was actually surrounded by bone fragments. Bones that looked HUMAN! Seeing as I spent a solid two days down there, I got a good look around. I think it was probably a hyena cave, where the scavenger brought all its meals—including some of the local hominins. But if I’d have tried to move the rocks to get at more of the bones, I could’ve further squashed myself, and Evie is way too worried about another accident to go back down there. Motherfucking irony, right?

Gotta say, that was the first time I’ve ever found skeletons particularly creepy. I know our culture wants us to think of them as macabre, but how can the body’s foundation be gross or terrifying? There’s nothing scary about a pile of bones. At least that’s what I thought until I was trapped in a cave surrounded by them.

I did manage to get one small bone and stick it in my pocket. Evie thinks it’s probably part of a finger. Maybe Mission Control will be able to extract some genetic material from it. If it turns out to be our only direct evidence of hominins in Zhoukoudian, maybe, maybe I’ll feel less grouchy about nearly being crushed to death in a cave collapse. But Evie found some old footprints just the other day, so chances are good that we’ll see more signs of hominin life in the near future. In any other situation I’d be excited about this. But it’s really hard to muster up enthusiasm when your ankle is the size of a bullfrog’s neck and your field leader isn’t sure when you’ll be able to walk normally again.

In other words, keep the paper dolls coming!

All my love,

Field Notes Part 3, Week 4: Zhoukoudian


To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby

There’s been a cave collapse. Andrea fell about three meters and her legs are buried under the rubble. She thinks at least one ankle is broken, but can still move her arms and upper torso. Impossible for her to move the boulders off and climb out without assistance. But the area surrounding the hole is still unsteady. Any weight around the gap might send more rocks loose and cause further injury.

I need more rope, several extra Grimmet belay devices and ascenders, a harness, Stokes basket, and a stationary winch. Once we’ve lifted the rocks off her, I’ll belay down, get her into the litter, attach her to the winch, and hoist her back up. By rigging a line between several trees around the cave, I should be able to descend without disturbing the surface opening.

Please dispatch the supply Dome to the last drop site ASAP. Weather is cold. Hypothermia an imminent risk.


Field Notes Part 3, Week 3: Zhoukoudian


To: Otto Sommer
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Pleistocene Brews

Dear Otto,

Ever since I received your note with a recipe for Pleistocene brews, I’ve been eager to try my hand. But we were always too busy with work, and so I delayed responding to you. I thought it better to wait until I had some evidence to offer of our experimentation. Today, finally, I’m able to provide that insight. We’ve embarked on the fermentation process for our unusual concoction, created based on the instructions you provided. We’ll send a sample back to Mission Control; perhaps they’ll be willing to give you some as well! I can’t promise the end result will taste particularly good. Still, it will be interesting to learn which species of yeast we managed to catch. I confess, I’m also looking forward to drinking a mild intoxicant instead of herbal tea.

Unfortunately the only reason we’ve had time for such experiments is because Zhoukoudian has proven a disappointment for hominin research. I expected to find the landscape covered by traces of ancient humans; if not swarming with them in body, at least filled with their lithic tools. But we only stumbled upon the first cache of stone tools yesterday. They look markedly different than the technology we saw in Olduvai and Atapuerca, but I’m no expert in tool technology. It will be the job of Mission Control scientists to do further analyses. The most fascinating aspect of this discovery was the half-decayed cervid hide buried under a layer of dirt and debris, suggesting some of the tools were for processing animal skin. In this case, it seems the worker was forced to abandon the project. If only we could actually see one of these Erectines.

Andrea and I are tempted to use the Dome for miniature time hops. We wouldn’t move spatially, just temporally, by a year or a decade, opening the door after each jump to look for evidence of life. But Mission Control deemed this too costly for our fuel reserves. It’s also possible that we would find nothing; ten years or even a century are a blink on this timescale.

Still, I fidget. Impatience is not usually my undoing, but it feels strange to go so long without finding anything. Perhaps it was luck that we happened upon hominins in our previous locations. If we’d landed several months earlier or later, would the landscape have appeared empty?

I hope your own research continues to be fruitful, and I look forward to sharing the details of our primeval brew.

All best,


To: Mission Control
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Enter the Pachycrocuta

Heyo MC,

I’d say things are heating up here, but it’s freezing outside and I’m seriously tired of wearing long underwear, so the metaphor doesn’t seem appropriate. But we did have our first epic encounter today! Evelyn and I were tromping through the snow, investigating fresh tracks and counting the species trapped in our bird nets, when the most ENORMOUS hyena came to stand at the top of a nearby hill. And I don’t mean in terms of height, but more in terms of build. It’s like you crossed a bull dog with a lion with a modern hyena and got this guy. Of all the wild things we’ve seen, this has been the most awesome and alarming. It didn’t slide down the hill and charge at us, even though it clearly noted our presence. Instead it just stood and watched.

Maybe it was hoping we’d leave some tasty carcass behind. Tough luck for the hungry hyena. Our nets didn’t hurt the birds and we set them loose again. Eventually it stalked off, leaving us to work in peace. Not gonna lie, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it wasn’t following us.

Evelyn has the drone set to identify and track more hyenas in the hope that they’ll lead us to some hominin remains. Yeah, they’d be dead, but at least we’d have some material to work with. The idea of hoping for a hominin’s death feels morbid and heartless, but what else can we do? All our hikes and surveys have been a bust. Even the drone hasn’t found much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to study the resident fauna and local geology. But Evelyn would really like to see some more Homo erectus, and truthfully, so would I.

As for your concerns about our morale—well, yes, this particular location has been challenging in new ways. Neither of us is sick or injured, now that I’ve recovered from my head cold, but we have moved past the time-travel honeymoon stage and are sinking into the winter doldrums. Maybe you could send a few more tasty treats with the next supply drop? In the meantime, we’ll keep on keeping on and all that.

Till next time,
Andrea Chang

Field Notes Part 3, Week 2: Zhoukoudian

WEEK 2, DAY TWO—Zhoukoudian

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Walking with wolves

Dear Pia,

We’ve spent the last three days tracking a pack of small wolves, likely members of Canis variabilis. Glimpses of them appear through the trees, chasing down pika and hare. Sometimes in the evening they creep into our campsite in search of tidbits. Unlike the wolves of Atapuerca, these canids are diminutive and harmless. One could almost imagine them rolling onto their backs, ears flopping, waiting for an obliging human to provide scratches. Andrea wants to monitor their behavior and possibly collar one of them. She wonders if this species has ever interacted with local hominins, if the wolves may even have adopted some traits seen in domesticated dogs. But whether the hominins themselves are exerting any domestication pressure is impossible to say. We’ve seen none.

Our days are strenuous. Hiking over steep hills, scrambling up the rocky portions, eyes on the ground in search of artifacts. The weather is cool verging on cold. No more snow since our first day, but pockets of white cling to the roots of coniferous trees. A thin glaze of ice crackles on all the ponds we come across. The sun goes down early at this latitude. Couldn’t we have visited each location when it was the summer, locally speaking? Andrea wanted to know. I understand the rationale for seeing different seasons, but agree that milder weather would be a boon. The work days are too short now; we spend evenings bundled in our tent, telling stories.

All these weeks we’ve spent together without approaching the subject of our childhoods. Well, you know why I’m reticent to discuss my parents. I’ve told her about past research expeditions, ski trips in the Alps, how the two of us met. The expression on your face when you discovered a live worm convolving through your chocolate mousse—that mingle of shock and curiosity—is part of what made me love you. (Is the café owner still giving you free espressos in reparations for that gustatory horror?)

She, in turn, has told me about her time in Southeast Asia, the friends she met while at uni, the inspiration for her video blog. But all discussion of our lives before the age of 20 seemed verboten, for the never-articulated but always-obvious sake of propriety. On a mission such as this, living and working with one single person for more than a year, it seemed necessary to draw lines between the personal and the professional.

But our experiences in Olduvai and now Atapuerca changed something. Yesterday evening, after watching a herd of rhinoceroses thunder through a nearby valley, Andrea turned to me and said, “I saw a man kill a rhino when I was six.”

Her family had gone on vacation to Tanzania, she said. A safari was the highlight of the trip, until their tour operator ran across a second tour group, this one escorting trophy hunters around the reserve. Not illegal poaching, of course, but people who pay fees to kill the old or infirm animals. Poor Andrea, little animal-lover, had nightmares for months after seeing one of the men shoot a rhino. That was when she decided to study animals, she said. To find ways of honoring the dead ones. No dinosaurs for her; she wanted to understand the fauna that inhabited the Pleistocene world, those impacted by the evolution of our species.

I look at this young woman who gave up so much to be on this mission, who helped me recover when I was sick, who listens to my hopes and fears for our expedition, and I am grateful. If I have to spend 64 weeks in the company of only one person, I am glad that person is her.

All my love,

WEEK 2, DAY FIVE—Zhoukoudian

To: Jun Nakamura
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: At least nothing is trying to eat me

Hi Jun,

My nose is so clogged that it’s impossible to do anything but mouth-breath, my head is pounding, my stomach has become a roiling sea of mucus, and I can’t even taste the delicious snacks Mission Control sent as an apology for putting us on a diet last week. How the heck do I even get a cold when I live 600,000 years in the past?! I’m no virologist, but I didn’t think rhinovirus hung around in the woods like the Big Bad Wolf waiting to infect Little Red with a runny nose. Evelyn hasn’t caught it from me yet, thank God, but we’re completely out of tissues, and the portable composter doesn’t handle them well anyway, so I’ve resorted to using her handkerchiefs. Yes, she has a collection of handkerchiefs. Yes, they’re monogrammed. Yes, I have to wash my snot out of them by hand.

This is why I’ll never have children. Cute as they are, I don’t think I could handle the boogers. How do our bodies produce so much mucus?!

It’s times like this when I am desperate to come back to the 21st century. I want a squishy couch to lay on, a few Netflix shows to binge, and copious amounts of tea. I can’t even get comfortable in the Mystery Box, because OF COURSE I fell ill while on a camping expedition. Do you know how much work it is to make a cup of tea in the wilderness? Or how uncomfortable tents are when your face wants to explode? On a scale of paper-cut to accidentally-rubbed-your-eyes-after-chopping-habaneros, I am approaching habanero levels of misery.

The tiny sliver of good news is that we’ve found a troop of macaques and observed them eating mushrooms! This isn’t so surprising in itself, but when I investigated fungal fruiting bodies, I discovered they were neon blue. Normally such bright colors would make me think, Poison. But maybe the macaques are immune to it? Or maybe they’re all tripping and that’s part of why they like the mushrooms. We’ll find out when we get back to the Mystery Box and send some samples to Mission Control.

I suppose the other silver lining is that Evelyn is doing her best to keep my spirits up. She’s disappointed we haven’t found anything hominin-related—no tools, no prints, no bones or bodies—but she’s stayed enthusiastic about the survey work. And at night, she tells me all about her childhood. Growing up with missionaries, moving around to different countries in Africa, speaking a handful of languages. Her life is fascinating, but you’d never know it because she’s so reluctant to talk about that part. I think she had a falling-out with her parents over her marriage, so it makes sense that it’s painful. But I like learning about this side of her. It makes her seem less like a hard-ass field leader and more like a complicated human.

I miss you so so so much! Please write quickly and tell me more about the “depressing news” of the real world, and maybe send a picture of your dog to make me feel better about it.

Your sniffly friend,

Field Notes Part 3, Week 1: Zhoukoudian

Week 1, Day One

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Third successful arrival, with one minor problem

We’ve successfully arrived in Zhoukoudian, circa 600,000 years before present. For the first time since setting off on this mission, the Dome failed to “stick the landing.” We emerged out of the space-time vacuum as usual, but instead of rejoicing in solid ground, we felt a perilous lean. The machine slid for what seemed like a meter before clanging to a halt. Once we were certain no more movement would occur, I unclipped my harness and went outside. In reality we had only slipped several centimeters and come to rest against a large boulder. The earth is rocky and uneven; not an ideal landing site, but nothing around us offers better. The Dome is solidly in place and, again contrary to our first impression, tilting only about 10 degrees.

Neither Andrea nor myself have any medical complaints after this most recent jump. It seems my abdominal discomfort in Atapuerca was indeed a result of whatever parasite accompanied me for the time hop. We’ll both take a secondary dose of vitamins, drink extra fluids, and avoid strenuous activity today, as recommended. But I don’t foresee any health-related difficulties.

The only slight obstacle is that we’ve been unable to locate the supply drop. Although we received its coordinates as usual, there was no sign of it at the designated site. This could be due to the weather. Snow has been intermittently tumbling from the sky, impeding our view of the area. I attempted a quick survey, but dizziness prevented me from doing more than a few loops. We have enough food to last us a week, though it’ll cut into our reserve supply. Andrea and I will set snares and attempt some hunting as soon as we’ve recovered. Weather permitting, the drone will take off on its first flight tomorrow. We’ll have to hope that our own hunting won’t disrupt the foraging of any hominin groups that may be nearby.

As discussed earlier, we’ll investigate the shallow clefts in the area for evidence of hominin habitation. Based on the fossil record, I’m optimistic that this location might offer high population densities. If we can illuminate the question of early human populations in Asia and their migration routes, that might go a long way toward understanding more about our origins.

Please advise as to the location of the next drop. We’ll be on the lookout for the missing supplies, and will investigate the drop site in advance to be sure the topography won’t result in further problems.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 1, Day Five

To: Michael and Deborah Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: I wouldn’t say we’re starving

Hi Mom and Dad,

Let’s start with the positives, why don’t we? First: Zhoukoudian has so far offered no sign of cannibalism, violent behavior among hominins, or scary predators. I mean yes, there are carnivores hanging around. The usual assortment of bears, hyenas, and big cats with pointy teeth have been ID’d by our drone, Batty. But they keep far away from us—maybe a sign that they’ve already had to compete with other two-legged primates for resources. Oh, and neither of us have any organ damage or anemia after this most recent jump through time! That’s also nice. Evelyn is healthy, I’m healthy, the air smells clean and fresh even though it’s freezing, and we’re having fun exploring this new location.

Now, the less good. Whatever Mission Control may have told you—or is being reported in the news—we are not starving to death. Yes, Evelyn is rationing our food just in case something goes wrong with the second supply drop. Yes, we’ve both tried our hands at hunting and concocted some unusual recipes (I liked the roasted fox with nuts better than the vole stew). And yes, we are, maybe, running a bit low on supplies. It won’t be hard to survive on the remaining food for the next week or so. Two full weeks might be pushing it. But that isn’t going to happen. So don’t worry too much.

We did end up finding the supplies on our third day here. Well, what was left of them. All the boxes unloaded by the package robot had tumbled down a steep bluff and burst open. The cardboard melted to pieces in the snow. Rodents managed to chew through biodegradable wrappers and eat most of our granola bars and dehydrated meals. We rescued some of the more solid containers, the ones with water purification tablets and salt and vitamins. Important, but not exactly satiating. Everything edible had been eaten or fouled by droppings. Looks like Mission Control provided a feast for the area wildlife.

I’m not worried, because Evelyn’s not worried, and Mission Control said they’re sending another big package within the next five days. I guess there was some kind of damage to the time machine they use for supply drops. It sounds like the machine landed on the side of a hill like us, but then flipped end over end. They said it was covered in dirt and scratches. Good thing the little robot inside survived. Unlike our poor tiny drone, Beetle. He got crunched by some bird of prey at Atapuerca, if you remember. We tried repairing him, but no dice. That’s another thing MC is supposed to send our way, but food is more important at the moment.

As of now, no sign of hominin life. We’ve been hiking the hills, monitoring the wildlife, looking for stone tools. But we’re completely alone as far as primates go. Just the two of us, sleeping in the Mystery Box, looking out the same old windows. It’s been seventeen weeks now since I’ve heard any human voice besides Evelyn’s.

Love and miss you,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 8: Atapuerca

Week 8, Day 4 — Atapuerca Mountains, Site 2

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Experimental archaeology and time-traveling taphonomy

With a mere four days left in our stay here in Europe, I have been busy digging graves. Not for any of the surrounding hominins. I’ve started with several small animals ensnared in Andrea’s traps. Next, a handful of the beads we received from the group that traded with us at our last location. Consider this my experiment in taphonomy. I’ll mark the spot precisely on our maps. Perhaps you can send modern researchers to the location to unearth whatever has survived the passage of 700,000 years. Will the bones of these little animals show evidence of their deaths? Will they fossilize, or disappear? Will the beads even survive over such a long period? Some seem to be made of bone, but others are a clay that I suspect will quickly deteriorate.

I’ve buried the objects in several different sediment types; the full experiment details are recorded in the attached document. I do hope this proves useful and can offer new insight into the fossilization process.

Our days have been calm since the incident involving the wolves. No sight of the hominin hunting party that came to our rescue, nor of any other groups. Andrea has found footprints, but they’re old and dry. Several nearby caves hold hominin remains in their bellies, these ones untouched by anything but the process of decay. Why cannibalism appeared in the first location and not here is a mystery. But considering the sheer quantity of deceased hominins, I assume that their numbers are relatively large, and cultural practices may vary widely between groups. If I could only spend more time tracking them across the landscape to see where they come from, if they interact with other groups—but even with a time machine, our time is still finite.

We spent all of yesterday attempting to replicate the spears carried by the hominins at the river. Unlike in Olduvai, there have been few opportunities to retrieve discarded tools, so we’re going by memory. The wooden staffs were approximately 1.5 meters long, ending in a point that’s flattened on one side. We used some of the stone axes we’ve collected in various locations to hack branches off a nearby ash tree, then shaved away at the end in hopes of forming a sharp end. Neither of us were particularly successful; we need to see the real toolmakers in action. The drone has been buzzing around every day; maybe it will collect some footage before we leave.

Till then, a few more days of data collection and cave exploration. I’ll send a final report before we jump forward again, but don’t anticipate any further upheavals.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 8, Day 7 — The nice side of the Atapuerca Mountains

To: Noelle Ng
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: And that’s a wrap!

My lovely Noelle,

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the letter with pictures of baby Jade! She is perfect and adorably pink and squishy and I can’t wait to meet her in person. It cuts me up to no end that I’m going to miss the first 16 months of her life. Technically, from where I stand in time, I haven’t missed anything, since she won’t be born for another 700,000 years. But I’m ignoring the technicalities because they give me a headache.

The good news from here is that Atapuerca no longer feels like a supernatural horror-slasher film. We used the Mystery Box to hop to a new location and I am significantly less creeped out by this spot. Which is insane because we almost got eaten by wolves last week! I know you’d say something about my brain being broken, but even though I had nightmares, that experience was less terrifying than being surrounded by hominins that practice cannibalism. In that old spot, we were just waiting to see what happened. Maybe I’ve watched The Hills Have Eyes one too many times. Evelyn maintains we were never in danger in that first location, but she’s also glad we came here. Especially because we’ve made one last discovery.

Since being in Atapuerca, we’ve seen everything from rhinos to venomous shrews (you’ll have to ask Jun for that story), but the one animal I desperately wanted a glimpse of was Megaloceros giganteus, the giant deer. Fossils of them place their shoulder height just over two meters, and their antlers could weigh up to 90 pounds! Yesterday I found some tracks that looked like they’d come from a large cervid. I set up a camera trap in the area, then unleashed the drone. It came back in the evening with actual footage of a giant deer! Today, Evelyn and I went out in the same direction hoping to see one in the flesh. We’d been hiking for about an hour when we passed the opening to a large cave. And since caves always have “fun” things in them, Evelyn insisted we investigate.

The floor was covered in footprints and shards of stone. All the way at the back of the cave we found a deep shaft going down into the earth for tens of meters. And piled inside were hominin skeletons. At the risk of sounding inconsistent, I’ll say that this pit of bones was much less horrifying than partially decomposed bodies. We couldn’t tell if any cannibalism had taken place just from looking at them—you need to do a more thorough analysis of markings on the bone to tell if they’ve been butchered. What the pit does imply is some type of burial. At the very least, the living hominins are moving dead bodies here; they didn’t just commit mass suicide, or all happen to trip and fall into this huge hole. And if this really is a sort of graveyard, it might push back the date for hominin burial practices by several hundred thousand years!

Evelyn is over the moon, obviously. I’m still a little bummed we didn’t see a giant deer, but I can admit this was a good trade off. All in all, I guess Atapuerca wasn’t so bad.

Lots of love,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 7: Atapuerca

Week 7, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains, Site 2

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Lost but soon to be found

Dear Pia,

It seems I’m now firmly in the habit of writing you letters late at night from various impenetrable wildernesses. Yes, once again, we are out beyond the Dome. Yes, I am on watch at the entrance of a small cave. Yes, love, I’m carrying mace and a taser should a hungry panther come prowling. But tonight there’s a new variation on our old game, which renders the situation slightly more precarious. I won’t worry about alarming you, because if you receive this letter, you already know we’re well. So to be blunt: for the moment, we are completely lost.

Several days ago Andrea was bitten by some kind of small rodent with presumably toxic saliva, as her entire hand quickly swelled up. We have several anti-venoms in our medical supplies, but I couldn’t be sure which one would work. Pooling our limited knowledge on the subject, we decided to treat it similarly to how we’d treat the bite of a modern venomous shrew, then sent word to Mission Control of the incident. Either our gamble paid off or the dose of venom was so small that it ran its course in 24 hours, because Andrea was mostly recovered by the next day. And, feeling relieved at this outcome, she agreed that we should do a day-long survey of the landscape as soon as the drone had completed its own reconnaissance mission. We only have two weeks in this new spot; I’d like to learn as much as possible in those 14 days.

This morning we left the Dome equipped with all our surveying gear, ready to do a combination bio-blitz and landscape mapping. We managed to find the remains of five hominins in one cave, all long-dead and reduced to bones, as well as a tool cache and traces of a fire. Andrea identified several dozen species in the forest and the nearby river. The sun felt so warm on my skin, the air so clear in my lungs, that I gave in to Andrea’s giddiness and agreed to hike further and further along the mountain range. We snacked on jerky and nut bars and sporadically visited the river for water, and both of us felt a lightness that’s been absent for many weeks. But then I realized the sun was arcing toward the horizon in the west and our shadows were growing long.

We turned around and walked in what we believed to be the direction of the Dome. But hours of backtracking only resulted in stumbling across our own recently-laid footprints; the hills and valleys of the landscape make it impossible to walk straight in one direction. With the onset of full darkness we found a shallow, unoccupied cave and are taking shelter here for the night. I’m not overly concerned about this setback. Tomorrow we’ll follow the river instead of relying on landmarks. I’m sure it will lead us back to the Dome, which is located not far from its bank.

Pia, I promised myself I wouldn’t bother addressing your nonsensical worries concerning my letters to Kholwa, but I’ve changed my mind. I wanted to be angry, but I can’t, not out here with the night sky watching me. You’re afraid for me, and your fear has made you suspicious. She and I are old friends, nothing more. You will always be foremost in my heart.

Ich liebe dich.

Week 7, Day 4—Another hidey-hole in the Atapuerca Mountains

To: Michael and Deborah Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Don’t freak out, but there were some wolves

Dear Mom and Dad,

Look, I’m writing you first of all, before I even send a note to Mission Control, because Jun apparently can’t keep his mouth shut and I really don’t want to give either of you a heart attack when you hear secondhand about things that have been happening. I don’t know if Mission Control will actually deliver your letter first, but let the record show that I tried.

Two days ago, Evelyn and I set out for a big hike around this new area. The weather was beautiful, we found lots of cool stuff, and absolutely nothing tried to attack, stampede, bite, sting, or eat us for an entire 24 hours. And it did end up being a journey of 24 hours because we got a little bit lost on the way back and had to spend the night in a cave. I take the blame for that one. I was leading and got distracted by the strangest fungi I’ve ever seen before—you know I like to pretend I’m an amateur mycologist—and somehow led us in a circle. Anyway, we passed the night in shifts and it was just fine and we got up in the morning and headed to the river and were following it back when we came across a pack of wolves drinking from the same body of water.

I’ve always thought wolves only attacked people in the dead of the Russian winter when they were starving, but apparently that assumption doesn’t apply to Pleistocene Spain. There were eight of them, and only two of us, and these wolves were scary big. They formed a circle around us and our predator-repelling pheromones were having zero effect and I was thinking, Ok, if we swim away maybe they won’t follow us. Evelyn sprayed a ring of mace around us, which sort of worked but didn’t seem like a longterm solution, and let me tell you, I did not want to get close enough to use a taser on any of those shaggy beasts. My heart was pounding and I just wanted to run like I’ve never wanted to run before, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually ever believed I’d die on this expedition. Obviously I know it’s a possibility, but some things you just don’t believe until they’re right in front of you. Now I had to believe in my mortality.

But then a group of five hominins came charging out of the forest with spears, attacking the wolves so effectively that four were dead before we could move. The remaining wolves ran off to lick whatever injuries they’d sustained and one of the male hominins approached us. His face, chest and hands were covered in blood, and he was taller than Evelyn and carrying a very sharp spear.

How Evelyn snapped her brain into action after all that is a mystery to me. I still hadn’t gotten my heart under control, let alone figured out what to do next, but she just slid her backpack around and pulled out some jerky and dried fruit to offer the man. He set his spear down and accepted the food. She mimed eating and he did so, cautiously at first, then with enthusiasm. He sort of signaled for us to join his group, and so we sat and watched them butcher the wolves, cutting big hunks of meat and removing the skins. The smell of blood and organs flooded the air, but beneath it I could also still catch the scent of the hominins, their sweat and breath.

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to another species of human. Before this, I thought it might be like seeing gorillas in the wild. It most definitely was not. Their skin is bare of fur, their faces aren’t like ours, but they’re not not like ours. And their hands! You just don’t realize how miraculous these appendages are until you see some other species welding sharp rock cutters in their own large, capable hands.

We walked with the hominins for a while, Evelyn in full observation mode, me just trying not to panic, and then separated to head back to our respective dwellings. But they gave us some of the wolf meat, and we gave them more of our food, and now, somehow, we’ve made “friends” with this new group.

I still haven’t wrapped my head around all this. I had nightmares about the wolves last night. Any strange noise outside the Dome sends my heart on an adrenaline kick. But also—I want to see the hominins again. I want to know if they ever have contact with the other groups. I want Evelyn to continue her research. Basically, I want to stay here in Atapuerca. Who’d have guessed it?

Lots and lots of love,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 6: Atapuerca

Week 6, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Atapuerca Assessment—Our hominin neighbors pose no threat

Before I embarked on this expedition, I was occasionally drawn into the old argument over violence and human nature. How many have posited that a cornerstone of our species is our propensity for savagery? Sometimes accidental, often in regard to the battle for resources, but always a key element in shaping our evolution. Lord Tennyson’s Man may pit himself against Nature’s red tooth and claw, but clearly it is often humankind that demonstrates such vicious tendencies. How can I push back against this line of thinking, especially in the presence of cannibals? Who am I to interpret non-violence in a single encounter, when the seeds of bloodshed may have been planted?   

Yet that is the argument I am making. Today we directly encountered the hominins of Atapuerca, and nothing but good came of it. Andrea has sent along her response to the encounter already, which she shared with me. I understand some of her fears, truly. But as the field leader and anthropologist of our team, I ask that you consider my version of events as well as hers. I do not believe we are in danger. I certainly do not think we should leave this site earlier than planned.

The camera traps alerted us to the approach of eight hominins shortly after 9:05 standard travel time. In the recorded images, three came armed, while the remaining five carried a blurry assortment of innocuous items. As they came closer to the Dome, we could see that these items included meat, unworked stones, a small pouch, and a basket of some kind of fruit. After quick deliberation, Andrea and I decided to venture outside the Dome armed with our tasers and a handful of dried meat.

Although it’s tolerably warm here in Atapuerca, the hominins wear animal skin tunics that come down to their thighs but leave their arms and legs bare. Their skin is dark, though not so dark as that of the Erectines, and their hair is a looser coil than their African relatives. Their bodies are built on heavier frames, but that could also be the effect of more abundant food sources. Even with these differences, the kinship seems evident.

Thanks to video footage, we’ve witnessed several members of the group moving with an unsteady gait, prone to outbursts of noise and tumbling over. These individuals must be cared for by the larger group, but they weren’t present today. All our visitors looked healthy—and entirely respectful. They stopped several meters from us and, one by one, set down their goods. I approached slowly, cautiously, and offered the same beef jerky I’d given the Erectines. This was accepted with what appeared to be great delight. The small pouch contained a handful of beads and the fruit looked like something akin to plums. I was of course thrilled to see the clay beads, because they look like no material that we’ve seen in this area. Evidence of trade from even further abroad? I hope your ongoing lab analyses will be able to tell us more.

It is clear from all this that the hominins know where we live, that they feel comfortable with our presence, and, presumably, they know they outnumber us. None of these facts make me nervous for our safety. Homo antecessor, if that’s what they are, have shown no sign of antagonism toward us. If anything, they’re being positively neighborly. I hope that you’ll take this into consideration in the decision about what we should do next.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 6, Day 6 — A new hill, but same old Atapuerca Mountains

To: Jun Nakamura  
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Of God and time-travel and venomous shrews

Hi Jun,

Evelyn told me today that every time we meet new hominins, she feels like an omnipotent god. And she hates that more than anything else. Her parents are missionaries, she said, and even well-intentioned missionaries are condescending. They have to believe their knowledge is more valuable than the knowledge of their subjects.

Me: But isn’t science the same way? I know some hella arrogant scientists.

Evelyn: Real science is an act of assassination. We test and retest and try to break the work of others. Only when something stands up to repeated attacks is it taken as correct. But religion is an act of faith. It is choosing to believe despite all lack of proof.

Me: That’s beautiful and everything, but also, maybe—and I say this with love and respect—you could have talked about this with the Mission psychotherapist? Because it sounds like you’re working through some serious issues and 700,000 years in the past is probably not the best environment to have a personal crisis.

Evelyn: She told me I was a work in progress. And to write more poetry.

So. Things I’ve learned today: Evelyn grew up with a bit too much Jesus; Evelyn writes poetry (and here I thought she was scribbling about all the ways I was a pain in the ass—though I suppose the one doesn’t preclude the other); and Evelyn was bred to have a savior complex. This explains a lot. Like why she felt so guilty over the Erectines when we left Olduvai (sweet Olduvai, how I dream of you!). Or why she was adamant that we stick around our original landing site here to monitor (read: help) the local hominins. It was only after this conversation that she finally agreed with Mission Control’s advice that we hop 20 km away in the machine.

It was just a spatial jump, not a temporal one, though I have to say, even that bit of travel is enough to cause motion sickness. I wonder if the physicists would be able to explain how the Mystery Box works after a ride in it. Anyway, we’re now in a different part of the mountain range, ready to make new observations. The hop didn’t affect our fuel supplies much. At least, it won’t hinder our journey forward in time, but we probably can’t do another spatial jump again once we’re in a new location, because then we’d be edging too close to the danger zone. Even though we’ll be more limited in the future, I feel optimistic for the first time since we’ve been in Atapuerca.

Or I would, if not for the fact that my right index finger is swelling so much it looks like one of those foam hands you put on for sports events. It’s lucky I’m left-handed, or I wouldn’t even be able to write you this fun letter!

I can see you shaking your head. What’s she gotten herself into now?! you’re asking yourself. But this time it really, truly, definitely was an accident. The kind I could not have prevented by being more prudent. I mean, unless I hadn’t joined this mission.

Ok, I’ll just explain. So we spent the morning packing up all our gear, then landed at our new site, and I decided to set up the rodent traps and all the cameras, because I’m supposed to be collecting new data, right? There I was, just working on one of the rodent boxes—for catching, not killing—and this tiny little guy jumps out of some scrub, buries his teeth in my knuckle, then scurries away before I can react. I’d say he was cute except I’m pretty sure he was also venomous, and I feel like that cancels out the cuteness.

Evelyn gave me some medicine for the pain and I don’t seem to be losing any motor function, so I’ll probably be just fine. Which means you have no reason to worry, and you especially have no reason to write my parents and tell them anything about this.

Your foam-fingered friend,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 5: Atapuerca

Week 5, Day 1 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Kholwa Mbatha
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Secrets and safety


I have fallen on the sword of secrecy. We all keep secrets, of course. As children, from our parents. As adults, from our friends. But when Pia and I married, we promised never to hide things from one another. An impossible vow to keep? Perhaps, especially if one defines the occasional well-meaning white lie as a secret. Yet I believe that, till now, we have fulfilled that vow. Neither of us ever expected to be separated by hundreds of thousands of years. Now the equation has changed. Now I’m not sure how to keep my promises.

This afternoon Andrea and I returned to the Dome with a bucket full of bones from a nearby butchery site. We were both excited by the find, eager to send things back to Mission Control, giddy with the warm, dry weather. Every day here without rain and fog is cause for celebration. But then I noticed something both tantalizing and terrifying: footprints, five distinct pairs of them, going in circles around the Dome. Some of the dirt on the machine had been scratched away, though the machine itself was perfectly unharmed and still disguised with its camouflage. Even so, the evidence was clear: the hominins of the area know something is here, something unusual, and they’ll be monitoring us.

Here we come to my quandary. Pia has been extremely concerned about my wellbeing ever since we arrived in Atapuerca. Understandable, given my illness upon arrival. But her worries have grown disproportionate to the actual risk, at least to my mind. She is adamant that I should avoid any further direct contact with ancient hominins, that I’m placing myself and Andrea in harm’s way, and even that Mission Control should consider sending weapons with which to defend ourselves. She knew this mission was dangerous when I signed on—but knowing something isn’t the same as accepting it. In the interest of keeping her from undue alarm, I’ve decided not to share this latest development. Am I wrong in hiding it? Am I wrong in wanting to protect her? What else can I do?

Lest you yourself start fretting over me, allow me to reassure you that I’ve taken concrete steps to keep both of us safe. One of Andrea’s camera traps caught the line of hominins marching up to the Dome with what I’d call an air of curiosity. Admittedly I’m interpreting those facial expressions according to my own experience, which can’t perfectly map over the social cues of these hominins. They are large and muscular, with sharp weapons: spears and large stones. Would they have used them if we appeared?

To prevent being taken unawares again, we’ve rearranged the traps to form a perimeter around the Dome. The cameras will alert us to any movement by large creatures. This unfortunately means we’ll also get notifications whenever a deer or wild horse trots by, but at least we’ll be prepared. We’ve also moved out of our encampment in the caves. I’m not happy to be back in the stifling Dome, but it’s safer. And now, we sit back and wait for the locals to come to us. Andrea isn’t thrilled, but I still feel more excitement than anxiety.

It has been so wonderful receiving your letters. I wish you could be here to see what we’ve seen. I’m sure it would thrill you. If you have any advice at all on the subject of P, please don’t hesitate to share it.

Your friend,

Week 5, Day 3 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Plea for an early removal

First of all, thank you to the lab crew for your speedy work in analyzing the tissue samples we sent along. I know the results are still preliminary and more work needs to be done, etc. etc., but I think we have at least one clear answer: both the local Cervidae populations and the hominins are suffering from prion diseases. And despite what Evelyn might say about the precautions we’ve taken, I think we’re clearly in more danger than we were in Olduvai.

Let’s look at the evidence: humans and animals around us are dying of what might be a transmissible disease; the disease causes irrational behavior; the hominins know where we sleep at night; and they’re also definitely eating one another. Yes, it seems to be cultural cannibalism, rather than starvation or violent behavior. No, that doesn’t make me feel any better, because we still represent a great unknown to them. And the hominin groups are larger and more numerous here in Atapuerca, and there are only two of us!

I know it sounds drastic, but I propose we jump to Zhoukoudian several weeks early. What else are we going to get out of staying here? We’ve already collected samples from the hominins and the local fauna. We’ve done weather measurements and mapped some of the local geology. We know a little bit about the hominin culture. DNA testing can tell us more about their relationship to the Neanderthals and Denisovans, and maybe even where they migrated from. Leaving early means we might miss out on opportunities to directly interact with them, but on the upside, it also means we won’t get killed and eaten. Pros and cons, people.

It seems to me that the one thing Evelyn really wants to know is where these people came from, how closely (if at all) they’re related to the Erectines, and how long they’ve been in this region. But those questions are almost impossible to answer definitively—it’s not like she can go up to them and start asking about their family history. Basically, it doesn’t seem like she can get the information she wants, and I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve collected on my end. Can we go see the Asian Erectines now, please?

Oh, and I’ve attached the most recent insect survey here. I’ll say this for Atapuerca, they’ve got some great bugs.

Till next time,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 4: Atapuerca

Week 4, Day 5 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: This won’t be like last time


I understand your fears, really, I do. Though I cannot place myself in your situation, I empathize with the uneasiness you experienced while I was ill. Andrea offered daily proof of those sentiments. Her eyes upbraided me whenever I took on any taxing activities; every morning she brewed a ginger concoction for me, a remedy from her mother. And she is only a friend and colleague; her heart couldn’t be as roughly affected as yours. But I promise, I swear, now that I’m well again I won’t go chasing down trouble. This time around, things will be different.

You may well have guessed that the paragraph above is both response to your letter and prelude to my own tales. I picture you on the bay window seat, with a mug of black tea perched on the bookshelf beside you, leaving rings on the wood. Your brow is furrowed, you sigh in exasperation, you consider flinging a pillow across the room. How could you have married such a woman? Well I only hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me for all the worry lines I’ve induced with my expeditions.

Yes, we have seen more hominins. No, I have not approached them. It seems we’ve inadvertently stumbled into a pattern of finding first a dead hominin, then a living one shortly thereafter. (Yes, I realize that an event occurring twice hardly constitutes a pattern, forgive my misuse of the language). Our sighting came via drone footage, not firsthand. A trio of them marched down a ravine, carrying the bloody limbs of some large four-legged creature. The drone followed them all the way back to a cave located some five kilometers from our own, into which they disappeared. Perhaps more awaited within. It’s impossible to say if they belong to the group that produced the de-fleshed child we found last week, but if they do, that eliminates survival cannibalism as a possibility. Don’t worry, love, we’ll continue monitoring from a distance before venturing any closer.

In the meantime there are still three thousand things to be done. We’re attempting to map the various cave systems without disturbing any carnivorous residents. So far we’ve only happened on a stray wolf, though Andrea also came across a bear when I was sick. Nothing has penetrated the little barricade we erected in front of our own cave except for the occasional bat. Those we don’t mind—they chase down the mosquitoes. Andrea has trapped several to test whether they carry potentially zoonotic diseases. Horrifying. I stay far away during this work. It is such a joy to be healthy again. I won’t take it for granted, and I won’t jeopardize it anymore. If only I could have you here with me, my heart would be entirely content.

An ocean of love,

Week 4, Day 6 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Noelle Ng
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: The mystery of the footprints

Dearest dear Noelle,

It’s about time you sat your ass down and wrote me a letter! And girl, don’t expect me to buy into that “I’m more of a phone person” bullshit, I’ve been on way too many of your email chains. You know I don’t mind sloppy handwriting. If you’re really that self-conscious, just write the next one on a computer and print it out!

Alright, I’ll stop hassling you. I suppose having a baby probably cuts into your free time a bit, so you’re forgiven for neglecting to send any word during my first ten weeks in the past. At least you kept in touch with Jun, so he could let me know you were still alive. But now you’re obligated to send at least one letter a month. Maybe when Baby Jade is taking a two-hour nap and you’re waiting to switch the laundry. And next time tell me more about the actual baby and less about the state of your uterus. You know I love a good medical story, but I want to focus on being a good auntie, so I have to know exactly what I should be worried about in terms of the kid’s future.

Now that I know you’re recovered enough to write about something as gnarly as an episiotomy, I can tell you all about the drama here in Atapuerca. It basically boils down to 1) cannibalism, 2) of children, and 3) a weird disease affecting members of the hominin population. That third part is a new development, one we noticed from footprints. Evelyn and I are both wary of getting too close to the hominins until we understand the situation better, so we’ve been sending out our drone, Batty, and keeping as far away as we can. It was Evelyn’s idea to start looking for footprints—there’s so much mud from all the rain. Speaking of rain, I’ve got this weird fungal infection on my fingers from being out in the damp all the time—trench hand? Anyway, we went to scope out some footprints after the hominins had been scavenging from fruit trees and we noticed that several of the footprints were very uneven, as if the walker was stumbling all over the place. A bit further on, closer to their cave, it looked as if one person was actually dragged.

Old age, you’re probably thinking. But that’s not what it looks like on Batty’s video footage. The people stumbling around are no older than the other adults in the group. They also seem to have tremors, and produce these weird squawking noises. It’s bizarre and Evelyn thinks it must be some kind of neurological disease. More investigating needs to be done obviously, but I’m not gonna lie, I’d rather focus on the fauna.

As it turns out, they have their own issues. I’ve seen four different species of deer, and among all of them I’ve noticed individuals with listless eyes, drooping heads, and emaciated bodies. It looks an awful lot like chronic wasting disease, which I’ve never studied back home but have heard about. We’ll have to collect some urine samples, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for when one of them dies. But apparently I’m not the only one with an interest in deer, because we found a pair of antlers hanging in a tree near one of the hominin caves. Yeah, Evelyn calls it an exciting example of material culture, but to me—that looks like some spooky murder mystert nonsense. And we definitely have a few mysteries on our hands.

Lots of love to you and Jade,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 3: Atapuerca

Week 3, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control 
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Onward and upward

I’ll begin as instructed, with a health update: my fever has been gone for 72 hours and the headache lingers only around the occipital. Slight weakness still evident, appetite not as vigorous as normal, still overly tired. But overall, incredible improvements. It’s impossible to say which antibacterial, anti-parasitic, or anti-fungal produced these results. There were so many of each. Perhaps the whole assortment in conjunction wiped out the Olduvai contagion. Please let me know if further analysis unearths a culprit; learning I played host to some never-before-seen microbial life form would be some compensation. For now, I will content myself with feeling well—and avoid all uncooked meats in the future.

This morning Andrea and I set off on our first half-day excursion. Still no sign of life from our drone, but traces of the hominins’ presence are scattered across the landscape. We’ve uncovered four caches of lithic artifacts, each of them containing dozens of tools carved from sandstone, limestone, flint, and quartz. The majority fall into Mode 1: some flakes and a few cores, most of them less refined than the handaxes in use among the Olduvai Erectines (see the attached report for full details).

It being one of the rare dry days, we decided to venture beyond our immediate surroundings in search of a suitable spot for the tent. Both of us are in desperate need of a new sleeping space. The Dome is permanently imbued with the scent of our bodies and breath. Fortunately, we came upon a perfect cave, with a narrow opening that even the lithest bear couldn’t squeeze through. Erecting a barrier to keep out smaller predators should be easy enough, which will negate the need to swap guard shifts. Andrea did warn that she saw the fecal pellets from some small rodent (Mimomys savini, she hypothesized). Those little teeth will be more than capable of chewing holes in our gear. We’ll set traps around the tent if we bring it there.

The only other incident of note occurred on the walk back to the Dome. We were picking our way across a shallow stream that ran through a picturesque valley when a sound like thunder alerted us to the approach of some large ungulates. Andrea reacted more speedily, boosting me into a nearby tree, then scrambling up herself. We hung in those low branches as pebbles bounced and earth shook. Then, the herd: over a dozen rhinoceroses being chased by two jaguars. The rhinos tossed their horned heads in agitation, bashing against protruding rocks and shrubs. The large cats dashed after them so quickly they didn’t notice us in the tree, though I believe we both held our breath until all had gone quiet again.

They must’ve been Stephanorhinus etruscus. And in such a large group! Andrea was overjoyed to have witnessed their passage. Even accidentally stepping in a large pile of rhinoceros manure didn’t quell her excitement, though the smell hasn’t improved the aroma of the Dome.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 3, Day 6 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Michael and Deborah Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Surviving the unexpected

Dear Mom and Dad,

Evelyn is better, the weather has been sunny for three days straight, we’re sleeping in a tent again rather than the smelly Mystery Box, and we’ve found a collection of tools made from bone in one of the abandoned cave shelters. So cool! I should be skipping around like a squirrel in spring with all the exciting changes, especially considering how things were when we landed here. Narrowly escaping a volcanic eruption, miserably sick Evelyn, weird sounds in the night. But I’m not thrilled or optimistic. Remember when I was in high school and had that string of terrible nightmares, and I acted even moodier than usual the morning after they happened? That’s how it feels now. Like waking each day from a disturbing dream that I can’t recall. That sense of wrong-ness lingers until night and then it starts all over again the next morning.

It’s just that something about this place seems haunted. Take today for example. Evelyn and I were investigating the hills for more caves—there are so many of them! As we circled back to the area where we’d started, I noticed a tree that looked familiar. It’s a huge beech tree with a big black gash down its trunk, so it’s pretty unmistakable. And that was almost exactly where I was when I retrieved our little drone, Beetle, from the raptor attack and heard something moaning last week. I told Evelyn, expecting she’d say we should head back to our own cave and send the surviving drone back here for further investigations. But instead she said we should poke around ourselves. Has she totally forgotten the lessons from Olduvai??! No, she says, she just wants to make sure our own shelter isn’t too close to any other hominins, and it’s better to find out as soon as possible.

So down we went into a little ravine, creeping along as quietly as possible and poking our heads in the rocky fissures that we came across. After fifteen minutes we’d reached the end of the ravine and that nervous lump building in my throat started to go away when Evelyn said, “Hey, there’s something over here.”

A few weeks ago those words would’ve been music to my ears! But now—well, I guess I had good reason to feel apprehensive. We squeezed through the entrance to a cave that immediately opened to a much larger gallery. It smelled horrible, like rotting flesh and grease and old blood. We found a pile of charred sticks, and ash clinging to the ceiling where the fire seems to have been ventilated. And there, only a few feet away, was the body of a small child. Or what was left of it. Much of the flesh had been stripped away, and its arm was cut off completely. Evelyn didn’t identify the teeth marks of predators on the body—she thinks cuts like those came from stone tools. Some hominin toolmaker ate the child. Maybe survival cannibalism, maybe a cultural mortuary practice, Evelyn says. She’s unphased by the whole thing. Meanwhile I’m ready to hop back in the Mystery Box and never leave. I’m no expert in forensic anthropology, but I don’t think the child has been dead for more than a week. Which means someone ate it since we’ve been here.

I don’t want you to think Atapuerca is all Gothic horror-show, so I’ll leave you with a slightly more normal anecdote. Yesterday while taking a water sample from one of the ponds near our cave, for eDNA analysis, I spotted the most enormous turtle I’ve ever seen. It nearly bit my finger off when I reached the vial into the pond and looked grumpy at having missed a meal. I could’ve kissed it, if it wouldn’t have ripped my face off. Finally, something normal and fascinating and completely natural. I’ll never understand people who struggle to feel empathy for animals. They’re so much easier than humans.


Field Notes Part 2, Week 2: Atapuerca

Week 2, Day 1 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Kholwa Mbatha 
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: My body the battleground


It was such a pleasure to discover your letter amid the flurry of mail we received this week. Here, I thought, a note I’m overjoyed to receive and can answer with equal gladness. The mail comes in a flurry, a deluge, an onslaught. More than half the letters go unanswered by necessity, or we’d spend all our time writing and neglecting the research. It’s dizzying to open fan-mail as the roar of a cave lion penetrates the misty forests outside the Dome.

So you say footage of our pre-departure training appeared on some celebrity news channel? A truly historic moment. I suppose they’re only interested in the high drama of time-travel and the harrowing effects it has on one’s body rather than the actual work we’ve done. But perhaps Mission Control is holding those cards close to the chest, at least for now. Discoveries must be reviewed, hypotheses tested and all. How would I feel if I’d not been chosen? If instead I were now reviewing the work of another field researcher?

As it happens, I am currently banned from field work and relegated to making slides and cooking dehydrated meals on the Bunsen. I seem to have caught a tapeworm at our last location. Simple enough to get rid of, one might think. The trouble is that none of the medications have worked to relieve my symptoms so far, leading our doctors to believe it’s either an unknown species, or something entirely different. They’ve taken samples from every possible fluid in my body and a remedy is hopefully at hand.

 The nausea and stomach pains have morphed into muscle cramps and a low fever—I do hope you’re enjoying my delirious ramblings. My head feels just like it did on the days we spent camping out, getting three hours of sleep and slowly going mad in the sun. Even with the discomforts of that era, I still dream of it: setting off on our little field trips, determined to find the bones of something long dead. I’m so pleased you’ll continue on at Witwatersrand with the Human Variation Unit. Please do send updates whenever you have the chance, along with pictures of little Thadie. She certainly has your cheerfully curious expression.

What can I tell you of Atapuerca? Olduvai was more desolate, but I felt at ease there. Or perhaps it was simply the excitement masking my worries. We’ve had rain five of the last seven days and the windows that serve as my portal to the outdoors are growing dark with mold. At night we’re assaulted by a chorus of shrieks and howls, the nocturnal battles playing out at our doorstep. Quite literally, in fact; Andrea discovered the head of a rodent outside the Dome just yesterday. She has spent her days doing brief excursions with the aid of a drone, collecting samples and doing botanical inventories to the best of her ability. 

I’d best be off to respond to questions from Mission Control. Next time I’ll have a brighter perspective on the world, I’m sure. And perhaps I’ll have more stories of hominin adventures to relate.

Sending love and well wishes,

Week 2, Day 4 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Jun Nakamura
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Presenting… your new nightmare fuel!


I have sanitized all our lab equipment, scrubbed every dish in our miniature kitchen, sewn up all the gashes in every pair of pants I own, swept under the machinery in the Mystery Box, written three reports from our Olduvai work, and played 27 rounds of Ratkiller with Evelyn (the backs of our hands will probably never recover from all the slapping, especially mine; she may be unwell, but her reflexes are still superhuman). The ace of spades and seven of hearts in our deck of cards will now be permanently dog-eared from their mistreatment in the game. I’m slowly going insane from cabin fever and the outside world is not helping.

It started with the severed head of a ferret-like creature sitting just outside our doorway a week ago. Now, you know I don’t mind dead animals, or guts and gore. And the decapitated critter provided an easy opportunity for identification. A Pleistocene present dropped right in my lap! But when I went outside to check for prints or scat that the predator might have left behind, I found thirteen more dead rodents. Some of them hadn’t even been nibbled—they were just murdered. Blood everywhere, the guts stinking like you wouldn’t believe, glassy little eyes partially scavenged or relatively intact and staring up at me. There are plenty of animals that engage in surplus killing (humans being the prime example), but that doesn’t mean it’s fun to stumble across.

Alright, so I’ve already got a slight case of the heebie-jeebies and then Beetle, our little drone, disappears. I was at my sorry excuse for a desk in the Mystery Box, manually operating it to take video of the area, when suddenly its video cuts off and the drone goes offline. Ominous much? This is the point in a horror movie when the moody piano score switches to the minor signature. And you’re throwing popcorn at the screen and screaming at the protagonist, “Don’t go out there, you idiot!” But Jun, I had to go out there. We need that drone. I knew exactly where it was when it went down, and it wasn’t so very far away, so I told Evelyn what I was getting up to and she gave me that tired, wretched “I-know-this-is-necessary-but-please-don’t-die” look and said she wished she could come with me. If this next round of drugs doesn’t cure her I’m going to lose my mind. I never realized how much I relied on her steadiness to keep me grounded.

Ok, anyway, so I get outside and it’s like I am actually in a horror movie. Mist curling up from the ground, drops of water sliding off the trees and plopping onto my neck, wind making the branches creak. I finally got to Beetle and the poor guy had been clobbered by some huge bird of prey, if the talon marks are anything to judge by. It looks like the raptor crunched it down to a rock and that’s what did our little drone in. He’s cracked and covered in mud, but there’s a chance we can still repair the damage.

I was feeling pretty relieved that the mysterious disappearance all came down to a bird doing its bird thing, and the forest suddenly seemed a whole lot less eerie, when all of a sudden I heard this moan. I dropped to a crouch, got out my taser, and stopped breathing. I swear to God it was like the sound someone makes when they’re dying and it couldn’t have been more than 30 meters away. I waited for a while, didn’t hear anything else, slowly stood up to leave, and there it came again. Three long moans in a row, the most human sounds you can imagine. That was enough for me to get the hell out. I sprinted back to the Box and have been here ever since.

Why is this place so fucking terrifying?! I almost got eaten by a giant cat in Olduvai but I just ho-hummed it off. You’d think with all the time I’ve spent in jungles, the forests around here would make me feel right at home. But they don’t and I hate it and I wish Evie would just get better so she could come with me and krav maga the shit out of anything that tried to attack us.

Your creeped-out friend,

Field Notes Part 2, Week 1: Atapuerca Mountains

Week 1, Day 1 — Atapuerca Mountains

 To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Asking the unanswerable questions

Dear Pia,

A fresh letter for a fresh start. We’ve arrived in Atapuerca, approximately 700,000 years before present. My gut burns and my head pounds, but the malaise that accompanied our first jump back in time is far less oppressive, perhaps because we are moving forward again. Always forward from this point on, bringing me ever closer to you.

Andrea is faring remarkably well, with hardly any symptoms. She suspects my gastrointestinal discomfort might come from a tape worm swimming through my intestines. If her theory is correct, there might be reason for concern; there’s no way of knowing how a parasite would respond to the experience of traveling 300,000 years in time. But I don’t want you to worry overly. Mission Control is aware of the situation and should send the necessary medicines in the next supply drop. For now, I’ll stay in my corner of the Dome, huddled over a mug of peppermint tea, wrapped in a fleece blanket, feeling useless and guilty.

Pia, I can’t wipe the image of their faces from my mind. Our Erectines, the Band of 17. Their prominent brow ridges, inquisitive eyes, the way they folded back their lips in a grimace-grin. I keep imagining what happened the moment we left: volcanic eruption, fire and brimstone. Or was it merely a burp of gas and smoke? Did they survive? And if they did survive, another possible calamity: what if I carried some germ that their immune systems couldn’t handle, whose effects I never saw? Mission Control inoculated us against every possible disease, but that certainly doesn’t mean we can’t pass anything on. A risk I recognized but discarded as improbable. All because it suited me to do so.  

The excruciating truth is that I have no way of knowing anything. Whatever happened—no more than a half-dozen hours ago in my mind, in my body—actually occurred several hundred millennia ago. Those people and their children and all their children’s-children’s-children have been dead for centuries. I will never know if they died on that day or another. If they remembered the stranger that visited with them for several weeks. I wrote before that being with the Erectines made every other pain and inconvenience a fair price to pay. Now that assessment rings hollow. The true tragedy of time travel: when you skip so lightly through the ages, no single life holds any meaning.

Rain patters down on the Dome as I write. Andrea has already done a short survey of our surroundings. She says the landscape is a patchwork of meadows and forest, speckled with innumerable caves. We’re sandwiched between the Rivers Ebro and Duero, surrounded by megafauna and fruit-bearing trees. An apt environment for more hominins. As you might recall, we’ll be searching for Homo antecessor, a species that left little impact on the fossil record and whose categorization remains disputed. That’s the case with so many of our taxonomies, isn’t it? We anthropologists are a quarrelsome lot. It’s so easy to argue over bones.

I’ll leave you for now, in hopes that this letter finds you well.


Week 1, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Atapuerca update

I am beyond relieved to report that not only was this jump much less painful than the last one, but I successfully retrieved all the supplies sent back to us. Evelyn is still too sick to leave the Mystery Box, but we have high hopes that the medicine will fix her up. She’s keeping busy with her notes from Olduvai and reviewing all the pre-departure material on Atapuerca hominins. I’ve been stretching my legs by going for several short—and careful!—walks.

Our current location is significantly more humid than Olduvai, as expected. We landed on a low hill, the karst landscape pocked with caves. It’s an easy kilometer to the first visible fissure, which I discovered yesterday. I located three more openings on my short jaunt before poking my head in a cave that happened to be occupied by a huge bear. And I thought they were supposed to be on the smaller side during interglacials like the one we’re in—that thing could’ve fit at least three of me in its stomach! I know, I know, their diets were mostly vegetarian. But when you’re within fifteen feet of a 1,200-pound omnivore, “mostly vegetarian” is hardly reassuring. I got out my mace, backed away slowly, then scurried out of there. The bear didn’t bother following. I guess it had other things on the menu already.

Thanks to the drones, I’ve also seen footage of bison, Bourbon gazelle, giant beavers, one cave lion and a small herd of straight-tusked elephants. I’d love to head into the field to observe the elephants, but where there’s one cave lion, there are probably more. With Evelyn sick and weak, I don’t want to take any chances out there by myself. We’re also holding off on putting up the tent anywhere, at least for now. Despite facing just as many large carnivores in Olduvai, I feel more exposed here. It might be the trees—you never know what’s stalking you in a forest. Or maybe it’s that I already had a run-in with one large mammal. Whatever the case, better safe than sorry for now. We might not enjoy sleeping and working in the same 402m space, but we’ll manage for a week or so.

In the meantime, I’ll be keeping busy with more surveys of the landscape and setting camera traps at a safe distance from the Mystery Box. Thanks for sending a bottle of Gusto. We’ll find out if Pleistocene predators like the smell of beaver and skunk scent glands as much as 21st-century foxes and coyotes do.

Until next time,
Andrea Chang

Field Notes, Week 8: Olduvai Gorge

Week 8, Day 3

From: Andrea Chang

To: Mission Control

Subject: Health and Wellbeing Update

 To Mission Control:

It’s just after dawn on the first dry day we’ve had all week, and I’m having my usual breakfast of peanut butter oatmeal. Any chance I can request a different hot cereal to be included in our next resupply drop?

As per the orders of my field leader, I’ll start this report with a short health assessment. We’ve been in the Olduvai Gorge for nearly eight weeks now, and neither of us show any symptoms of malnutrition, anemia, or internal bleeding. The initial jump back of one million years left us relatively unscathed—at least once we recovered from the time-travel hangover. Neither Evelyn nor myself have sustained any serious injuries, though she has recently collected a number of superficial cuts on her feet and hands. None of those wounds show signs of infection, so the antibacterial cream and NuSkin bandages are doing their jobs. Finishing up our stay around Olduvai without any broken bones or stitches seems like cause for celebration, considering how many trees and cliffs we scrambled up.

But I wouldn’t say we both have a totally clean bill of health. Whatever Evelyn may claim about her nausea, she’s been getting sick after meals for nearly a week now. My (admittedly uneducated) guess is some kind of intestinal parasite or tapeworm, as she’s already treated herself with a dose of antibiotics and antifungals. Sharing food with other hominins might need to go on the list of things to avoid. Or at the very least, I think the food should only be shared when it comes from an obviously fresh kill, or when it’s been cooked. Seeing as I am but a lowly assistant, perhaps this is a rule that the directors might want to discuss with my fearless leader. (Meanwhile, my stomach is as steely as ever thanks to a diet of pre-approved supplies occasionally supplemented by wild meat and tubers that are always cooked to a crisp.)

I’ve been at the Mystery Box all this morning, collecting the last bit of data from our mobile weather station and removing the camera traps set up around the area. What I really want to be doing is chasing down the last possible hint of Paranthropus boisei. Just yesterday one of our drones identified a new cluster of hominins whose body profiles don’t match the Erectines. They looked smaller and seemed to be perching in trees. But they’re a full 12 kilometers from here, and I’m almost positive some kind of eruption event is imminent. If only time travel could also prevent natural disasters! The last thing I want is to be caught out in the open and roasted by magma or suffocated by poisonous gases or swept away by a lahar (the weather has been rainy enough the past few days for that to be a possibility). It is insanely frustrating to be this close to an answer about the question of whether two hominin species overlapped and interacted, and not be able to get a definitive answer.

Stay tuned for an update sometime in the next 24 hours. I suspect we might be forced to make our jump forward sooner than planned instead of finishing out the last week.

- Andrea Chang

Week 8, Day 3

From: Evelyn Willoughby

 To: Pia Schuster

 Subject: —

Pia, my love,

The ground has been shaking intermittently for nearly an hour now. Andrea just grabbed the last of the lab equipment and is stowing it away. Five more minutes and we’ll shoot off into space-time again, headed for our next stop. I’ll steal those five minutes to jot down this note for you.

Andrea saved my life today. I’ve been so absorbed by the work with the Erectines, so determined to see it through. I didn’t want to listen when she said the regional tectonics appeared worryingly dynamic. I set out from our cave to meet the group as usual. She chased me down with the drone, which blared its warning bell. The younger Erectines scattered, the older ones crouched behind trees and boulders, gripping their handaxes or spears. I wanted to shriek my exasperation. But then I noticed the ground rippling gently beneath my feet, so gently that my excitement may have masked it. And I ran and ran back to the cave, then on to the Dome. I prayed, Pia, for the first time in years. The words were just as familiar as they’ve always been, but also just as hollow. I wanted so badly for those words to have power. I prayed that the Erectines would be so alarmed by the drone and my sudden departure that they, too, would run.

If I’d listened to Andrea sooner, could we have explained some part of it to them? Could we have prevented their deaths by smoke or flame? Maybe there’s still time before the volcano erupts. Maybe not. I can do nothing now, save no one. My battered feet are bathed in cold sweat and my writing is a messy scrawl because I can’t stop my hands shaking. Outside the Dome’s porthole I see black smoke billowing into the sky.

I’m sending this at the last possible moment because I want you to know we’ve made it. We’ll make it. Tell my parents I’m sorry I never wrote, and I love them. 

- E.

Field Notes, Week 7: Olduvai Gorge

Week 7, Day 1

From: Andrea Chang

To: Deborah and Michael Chang

Subject: When your field leader goes rogue

 Dear Mom and Dad,

It’s been a weird couple of days. I mean, you expect a certain amount of weirdness when you’re a time-traveling scientist living in the Pleistocene without any of the comforts of the modern world. You know, listening to birds that no longer exist chirp their way through dusk, seeing huge carnivores prowl the savannah, coming face to face with actual hominins. But those uncanny experiences are what I signed up for. Like, I knew it would mess with my head to actually be on the ground for important bits of evolutionary history, that it might give me a literal god complex, because only deities get to go on this type of tour. But we were trained for that. What I was not trained for is what to do when your field leader goes completely insane.  

Evelyn spent the night away from our campsite two days ago—which she still hasn’t apologized for, because she doesn’t think I had any reason to worry. And now she’s decided that the previously non-negotiable rule about traveling alone is irrelevant because she needs to keep visiting the Erectines. I’ll give her this: she looked like a total badass walking out there to greet them in the buff with nothing but Beetle to offer any backup. We thought clothes would be confusing or even disturbing to hominins that are smart but perpetually naked. And Evelyn insisted that she should be the one to make contact, not only because as leader, she should take the greater risks, but also because her skin is so much darker than mine and more like that of the Uprights.  

Which was fine and kind of awesome at first, but now she insists on going back every day, and says I can’t come because they’ve probably never seen someone like me and they might get cagey, so here I am back in the cave, preparing samples and doing a bit of rock roundup for the geologists back at Mission Control while she’s off by herself going on hunting expeditions with her new BFFs and putting herself in harm’s way repeatedly. Hellooooo, Mission Control, where are the lectures now?  

I guess a part of me is jealous, and another part of me is furious that she’s taking such huge risks, but the biggest part of me is just really, really worried. Evelyn is supposed to be the responsible, dependable one, yelling at me for being reckless. But now she’s not taking care of herself at all and I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried expressing my concerns in every possible way: sitting her down around the dinnertime fire and using my direct but empathetic voice; confronting her in the morning with a stern warning about what might happen; even actual yelling about how I can’t keep this mission going on my own if she gets hurt. She responds to all of it with this steely self-righteousness. No matter that she’s been vomiting after half her meals and pretending it’s just because she gets nauseous before her period (uh-huh), or that she has to re-bandage the cuts on her feet every night (and won’t let me help or look at them, which means they’re probably pretty gnarly). She just says in this infuriatingly calm voice, “We’re here to learn as much as possible, and this is my chance to do so.”

I know she’s the anthropologist and this is her jam. But still. Do you think I should try writing a letter to her wife in hopes that she can talk some sense into Evelyn? Or would that be totally beyond the bounds of professionalism? I know the answer, but it’s the only thing I can think of.

In any case, there might be good reason for us to leave soon. I felt a slight tremor today, and will be hiking to the Mystery Box tomorrow to check the seismograph. This area is still tectonically active, and we know some volcanoes went off during this period. If there is even the slightest burp of smoke from one of the cones I’m getting us out of here, even if I have to drag her away.

Ugh. I’m so worried about her that I haven’t even been enjoying going through all the jaw bones and fecal samples I’ve collected from ungulates around the lake. What is the world coming to when I can’t enjoy working with bones and poop?

Lots of love,


Week 7, Day 5

From: Evelyn Willoughby

To: Mission Control

Subject: Week 7 Update, part 2

Over the past week I’ve generated such a wealth of data that it felt necessary to file a second report. I hope this will continue to prove the value of my undertaking and assuage the concerns of those who fear for my safety. Additionally, this letter should serve as a guide to the field notes I’m including.

1. Allomothers and family structure

Seven days of observation have borne out my initial conjecture that the women of the group share responsibility for the young, regardless of which are their genetic offspring. Two mothers are still breastfeeding, sharing the duties of feeding a single child between them. (It’s unclear whether nursing produces the same lactational amenorrhea as in Homo sapiens women.) I have attempted to learn what happened to the second child, but communication between myself and the Erectines is too limited for such details. My guess is predation by a carnivore or illness.

 While the older women tend to the children, the young women sometimes travel out with the hunting party. I have yet to determine the structure of relationships between the men and women, except that they couple only when both parties appear willing. At one point I watched a young man attempt an exchange with one of the breastfeeding mothers and the women closed ranks against him, shooing him off with hissing and rock-throwing. [See pg. 23 of notes for a description of this incident; pg. 02 includes more precise designations for each of the Erectines.]

2. Hunting and foraging behavior

This group of Homo erectus are omnivorous opportunists par excellence. Although I hesitate to apply that description to the whole of their species, it could very easily explain how they managed to survive for nearly 2 million years and spread across most of the Earth’s continents. I have seen this group practice entomophagy; collect seeds, tubers, nuts and various plants; trap fish in rather ingenious cattail baskets [see pg. 49 for more updated section on tool use]; scavenge meat from the kills of large predators; and hunt smaller mammals, including vervet monkeys and what might be Paranthropus boisei.

I did not directly observe this last kill; I only witnessed the hunting party return with the dismembered remains of a creature whose form looked similar to their own. The limbs were shorter, but the ankles and feet were clearly built to support bipedalism. Adding further evidence to this hypothesis is the fact that several of the Erectine men have herpes simplex sores on their lips. As far as I’ve seen, only the men eat this hominin-like meat, and they seem to be the only ones afflicted with the sores. Many questions remain about this incident: whether the creature is a regular part of their diet; if it was killed in some dispute; if it was their prey; or even if they simply scavenged it after another animal killed it. Andrea has agreed to send one of our drones further out on reconnaissance missions to search for this second hominin. [See Appendix B for samples of tissues I’ve collected from the meat they consume.]

3. Cultural markers and the possibility of relationships with other Erectines

This band of Erectines use red ocher as body ornamentation, but wear nothing else on themselves. They also decorate their spears with a series of notches that indicate, I believe, the identity of the tool’s maker. We first noticed such markings on the spear Andrea collected; I have since seen them on every large wooden tool in use among this group. I have recorded four of those markings in my notes [Appendix C]. One symbol in particular is repeated on many tools. One afternoon, I watched an older man place this etching on a new wooden spear, using his personal handaxe to cut the design. My guess is that he is considered the group’s most proficient toolmaker, though others regularly undertake tool production, especially when it comes to the more disposable tools.

Of final note is something discovered by our drone. Three days ago, one of them sighted traces left by another Erectine group, close enough that their activities almost certainly overlap with those of our Homo erectus band. I suspect the two groups have some knowledge of one another, as the Erectines are keenly attuned to their environment. As of now I have no direct evidence to offer, but will continue investigating the question.

See the compiled notes for further details on all of these subjects. I’ve tasked Andrea with offering an assessment of our health and wellbeing in her next letter back.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Field Notes, Week 6: Olduvai Gorge

Week 6, Day 2

From: Andrea Chang

To: Mission Control

Subject: Week 6 Update—Of Bees and Baboons

I just want to start by addressing the spear issue, i.e. the ethical implications of taking a tool that might have been retrieved by its makers at some later time, plus the dangers I exposed myself to.

First, I understand why certain project directors might come to the conclusion that I caused future harm—or at least inconvenience—to the Homo erectus clan that constructed the spear. For those not on the ground, it might seem as if I took advantage of a less technologically advanced society in a way that mirrors more recent human history. Please rest assured that I am not some Pleistocene mercenary lording my Homo sapiens abilities over the “lesser hominins.” We have been monitoring the Erectines for several weeks at this point, and I can say with confidence that some of their tools are more disposable than others. Stone handaxes appear to be very valuable, but less durable products are treated with less care. We’ve seen the hominins use and discard sharpened sticks that serve as knives, hollowed reeds used to collect termites, and even clumsy nets made of bulrush fronds. I believe Evelyn has made a report on her observations of material culture, seeing as that’s her area of expertise and not mine. Let’s just say that we had good reason to believe that tools aren’t always highly treasured.

As to the second issue, regarding my safety, I can only say: We. Are. The. World’s. First. Time-Travelers. Of course it is dangerous. Of course I was taking a risk. I did so in the belief that it was a justified risk, and I still believe that now. All field work comes with hazards, and those hazards are exponentially more challenging given our temporal location. But I am not “brash” or “reckless.” I am conducting my research to the best of my abilities and responsibly managing the risks as they arise.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to the fun things.

While Evelyn has been busy making observations of the Gang of 17 (our Erectine friends), I’ve been keeping an eye on the local fauna. Three days ago a herd of several dozen Therpopithecus oswaldi baboons entered the grassy area just beyond the forest that surrounds the lake. Evelyn agreed to accompany me for a day of reconnaissance. Modern isotope analysis of their teeth has suggested their diet shared some similarities with that of Paranthropus boisei, and both of us are eager to track down the Nutcracker. Unfortunately no hominins showed up, but I did gather a lot of information about what the baboons are eating, and their mating behavior. Some of the females seem to be in estrus, and all of them solicited copulation from the males rather than the reverse. It would be interesting to see whether their skin patches change texture as is the case in our Gelada baboons, but we weren’t quite close enough to tell. I’ve included a full report on my observations and fecal samples we took in the accompanying packet.  

All went well enough until our hike back to the caves. I managed to disturb a cluster of bees and earned myself five stings on my hands and neck. Thank God we brought the sting cream to this campsite. Seeing as this is the first minor injury either of us has sustained, I suppose I can’t complain too much. Though I’d mind even less if I’d had the presence of mind to bring one of the dead bees back with us to study.

Until next time,


Week 6, Day 6

From: Evelyn Willoughby

To: Pia Schuster

Subject: Risks and rewards

Dear Pia,

Some day in our shared future you will ask me if it was worth it. The training, the discomfort, the fear, the privations, the 18 months spent away from you—was all of it balanced out by the knowledge we earned? I cannot predict what I’ll tell you upon my return; so many times and places remain ahead of us, seven more before we return home. But perched here on a cliffside, nauseous and soaked and alone, I can only say yes. It has been worth it. I suspect, however, that you will strongly disagree when you hear the full story.

Last night Andrea and I came to the decision to initiate direct contact with the nearby band of Homo erectus. They came within 300 meters of our cave entrance two days ago, and we suspected they’d become aware of our presence on the landscape. The options before us: abandon our current location and move to another cave; leave the area altogether and return to the valley near the Dome; or make ourselves known more directly and show that we offered no threat. To my surprise, Andrea favored the first option over the last. I know she received some sort of admonishment from Mission Control over the spear escapade, and that has perhaps made her more prudent. But in this case, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up and I eventually talked her around to my perspective.

This morning we waited for the Erectines to make their daily trek down to the lake for water and foraging, then I stripped to nothing and walked to the path they normally take. I carried only a handful of jerky to my meeting with them. I ought to have felt embarrassed or ashamed, or at the very least uncomfortable, without any clothing, but I was too nervous about the hominins’ response to concern myself with a few extra inches of fabric between myself and them. Andrea and I agreed that clothing might add to their uneasiness; better to disarm myself, so to speak.

The leader, a tall male, stopped everyone when he saw me. I slowly placed the jerky on a rock, took one piece and chewed it to show it was edible, then backed away. All members of the group were present, including two toddlers and three adolescents. The adult females clustered around the younger ones, some of them wearing streaks of red clay in bands around their arms (seeing that ornamentation was already enough to send me over the moon). Several males stood around the females, forming a further line of defense with their wooden spears. I prayed Andrea wouldn’t need to charge in with a taser, and took comfort in the low hum of Beetle flying nearby to observe everything.

The tall male walked forward cautiously and sniffed the jerky, then nibbled a piece. His eyes widened at the flavor and he jerked a glance back up at me. I did something like a bow to indicate it was a gift, and the rest of the group gradually came forward to take their own piece of dried meat, making noises that I assume were excitement. The meat hasn’t been processed with ingredients like soy or pepper, but the saltiness alone was probably a surprise to them.

After the initial encounter, one of the women approached and placed a callused hand on my bare shoulder. Pia, her eyes, they were so curious and penetrating. I’ve had brief encounters with chimpanzees and gorillas and other animals that show some proof of intelligence as we conceive it, but never has another being looked at me like that. She was perfectly aware of what she was, and knew I was something different, but similar. She could see that I was intelligent—that we could exchange goods and maybe even ideas. I’ve always thought of Homo erectus as another hominin, but in that moment, for the first time ever, I believed they were people.

The woman made a cooing sound and gestured for me to join them. I swallowed what remained of my nerves and followed as they headed back up the cliff, presumably farther away from the predators that carouse around the lake. After about thirty minutes of walking we reached a cave much deeper than the one in which Andrea and I sleep. Inside were piles of dried grasses, traces of a recent fire, and the remains of an antelope carcass. The tall man offered me a chunk of the raw meat, which I felt obliged to eat, though my stomach hasn’t thanked me for it.

For the rest of the day I watched and occasionally assisted with various tasks, be it preparing the stems of cattails or deboning the fish they’d caught. I watched women alternate between tending to the children and working at the food, saw some of the men head out with spears and return with several small rodents, witnessed the production of a new handaxe from a pile of stones in the corner. The time passed so quickly, in a blur of smells and sounds and sensations. I can’t be sure if they speak as we think of it, but they did make noises to each other on occasion. When I finally left as the sky grew dark, the women began a haunting refrain of howls and whistles and trills that wove into something almost like music. 

Upon exiting the cave, I discovered it wasn’t only night that brought darkness, but also a storm. Given the distance to our shelter and the risk of being exposed to lightning, I found one of the smaller caves in which we’d stashed supplies in case of an emergency. I’ll camp here for the evening.

Although we agreed I would rejoin Andrea much earlier, I’m sure she’ll understand the excitement that delayed me. Pia, they sing, they think, they plan. Despite the adrenaline still pumping through me, and the cold air, and the cuts on my feet from walking without shoes all day, I have rarely been so happy in my entire life. It is clear to me now in a way it has never before been that our species has not spent its entire existence alone. We are not the only people to have walked the Earth.

Ich denke an dich mit all meiner Liebe,


Field Notes, Week 5: Olduvai Gorge

Week 5, Day 3

from: Andrea Chang

To: Jun Nakamura

Subject: Tool retrieval FTW

Hi Jun,

Last time I wrote you I promised I’d be more careful, and that I’d listen to Evelyn, and I swear, I had the best intentions of actually doing so. I’ve been extra careful when we’re in the field, given how close we are to a group of Homo erectus. But when I saw a member of the Upright Tribe using a wooden tool at a butchery site, the temptation was too strong. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to do some up-close, on the ground observation. (I mean this in a literal sense: we set ourselves up in trees to observe the Erectines without getting too close.)

 We discovered the kill site thanks to our littlest drone, Beetle. It recorded a pride of lions taking down a truly massive elephant. I’m almost positive it was a Palaeoloxodon recki, which is one of the largest elephants that ever lived. This guy must have been old and slightly lame, or the lions never would’ve taken him on. We measured him at 15 feet tall at the shoulder. He had huge tusks and a high forehead, paired with short, stubby ears. The sheer size of him took away any sense of the ridiculous. And the bellowing sound when he went down, my God. It was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen, and I only watched second-hand from a video recording.

 We hurried over to the kill site as soon as we finished watching the video display. The lions were still feasting when we got to our lookouts, stationed a safe distance away. A few hours later, the scavengers took over: hyenas and vultures and a couple smaller cats. Finally, along came our hominin crew. The group included seven adult-sized Erectines, who took turns cutting off big chunks of meat with handaxes and standing guard with spears. Wooden spears.

 Ok, so not only is this cooperative behavior, but it also shows that they are making wooden tools! As I watched, one of them used the spear to jab at a hyena that was getting dangerously close. The hyena darted away, but the hominin struck a small boulder with their spear. I couldn’t tell from a distance if the spear had broken, but the hominin threw it aside and none of them bothered to pick it up when they left.

 I’m sure you can guess where this is going. In my defense, I radioed Evelyn to ask permission, and she didn’t answer. I’m honestly a little worried about her. We’re supposed to be taking naps every afternoon to make up for the shortened nights of sleep due to being on watch, but she’s been chewing caffeine tabs so she can work all afternoon. I tried telling her she needed to get more rest, but she just started tying herself into the trees we sit in.

I waited for an hour after the hominins left and tried to wake Evelyn up again, then climbed out of my tree. I double-checked to make sure she was safely attached to her acacia, then darted in the direction of the spear, spraying mace behind me as I went along. I felt like Lara Croft chasing down some mysterious artifact. Badass and petrified at the same time. The spear was far enough from the kill site that none of the hyenas crunching the elephant’s bones even turned towards me. I grabbed the spear and ran back to get Evelyn down.

She was peeved, as I expected, but couldn’t hide her excitement. The spear is cracked near the tip, but was definitely sharpened recently. Spots along the shaft are worn smooth from hands. Another hominin held this just hours before me. It’s an awe-inspiring feeling.  

Most of the time the research isn’t quite so exciting as it has been today. Lots of watching and taking notes and looking over drone data. But these bursts of action give everything else color and texture. They remind me that I am actually living 1 million years in the past. I miss you and my pup, Cricket, and my parents—but I’m so grateful to be part of this experiment.

 Your spear-stealing friend,


Week 5, Day 6

from: Evelyn Willoughby

To: Miguel Velez

Subject: Asking for some advice

Dear Miguel,

Thank you for the kind note you sent recently, if “recent” is applicable for a letter written 1 million years in my future. I received it, along with a folder of other missives, in our resupply drop a week ago. It’s so easy to forget that the 21st-century world continues without us, that there are office politics and research funding requests and collegial nights at the pub. Hearing about those details makes me feel less alone in the wilderness. It also reminds me that there are resources at my disposal, even if the logistics are more complicated than simply walking down the hallway to visit you in your office.

Do you remember the graduate student who worked as a manager for the Steinhardt Genetics Lab several years ago? He was meticulous and level-headed, exactly the kind of person one would want keeping track of the ongoing experiments and lab equipment. But he also had the terrible habit of calling lead researchers at all hours of the day or night to report results or discuss his concerns. He was so excited to be working there that he never learned the proper behavior for communicating with us. Managing him took nearly as much work as conducting tests.

I find myself in a similar conundrum now. Andrea is undoubtedly one of the most talented and dogged field researchers I’ve ever worked with. We also get on wonderfully and I enjoy spending time with her, even in trying circumstances, i.e. when the both of us are sleep-deprived. But she continues to ignore my requests that she be more prudent. Just this week she abandoned the observation posts we established in trees to keep ourselves a safe distance from predators and our Homo erectus group in order to recover a wooden spear. When I asked why she couldn’t have waited another day or two, when the kill site had fewer carnivores around it, her answer was that it might have been further damaged.

Andrea’s motives are always good. She wants to gather as much data as possible, which includes recovering artifacts. But sometimes she treats this expedition as a game. As if nothing could possibly go so wrong that we might need to return to the future earlier than expected. No matter what I say, the warnings I provide, she always responds that she is erring on the side of caution. Our definitions of caution, it seems, are fundamentally different.

So I ask you this: In my place, would you continue trying to convince your colleague that your understanding of risk and caution is the correct one, or would you bow to their version? The infuriating reality is that so far, Andrea has been proven right. She hasn’t been injured, and her risk-taking has been rewarded. Perhaps I am the one who should be more flexible and take more risks. But I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

In the meantime, I’ll continue my own research into Homo erectus cooperative behavior. Not only have we seen them work together in scavenging endeavors, but our drone also captured footage of cooperative feeding. Allomothers are actually assisting in childcare, and food retrieved by males is shared throughout the group. Very exciting finds that will help me continue to pursue the question of just how similar the Erectines are to Homo sapiens. I only hope neither of us will get hurt in the pursuit of these questions.

All my best,