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,