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