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,