Field Notes, Week 4: Olduvai Gorge

Week 4, Day 1

from: Andrea Chang

to: Mission Control

subject: Week 4 — Moving Out!

It’s day 28 in the distant past and we’ve had some very important developments over the last 24 hours. The most important news is that we’ve relocated our campsite and are now approximately 8 kilometers from the Tipler Dome, sleeping in a shallow cave whose entrance we’ll take turns guarding overnight. Obviously tromping across the region in daylight and leaving behind the Dome comes with some risks. But between the two of us, we’re probably equipped to handle just about anything besides acts of God. Evelyn and I are both armed with tasers, predator-repelling pheromones, mace, and fast-acting adhesive sedatives in case of close combat. We’ve got no idea if any of our hominin relatives are big into wrestling and sneak attacks, but we’ll be prepared if they are. Evelyn’s krav maga skills don’t hurt either, but she says she’d prefer if that were a last resort. Neither of us want to hurt any other sentient creature.

The reason for departing our quiet little haven in the valley where we landed is Mr. Upright himself. As Evelyn informed you in her last briefing, we sighted what appeared to be a controlled fire on day 23. Drone monitoring since then revealed a group of 17 hominins that we believe to be Homo erectus. Video footage from the drone shows them to be quite tall, with high foreheads, narrow pelvises, and little apparent sexual dimorphism. More or less what we’d expect from skeletal remains, but it’s hard to be sure without closer observation. In the back of our minds is the constant possibility that any hominin we run across could be a species that hasn’t yet appeared in the fossil record. A missing link! A ghost species!

Whatever the taxonomy of these two-leggers, we do know they’re using tools and they’re cooperating. After four days of surveillance we put together a basic picture of the group’s foraging strategies. We’ve seen them hunt small game and scavenge larger kills made by leopards and big cats, and they visit small lakes and rivers for water throughout the day. The video also suggested one big surprise—they appear to have traces of body paint on their arms and torsos. But this was only visible on three individuals, and it’s possible we were just seeing dust. The last time we got too close with the drone, one of the smaller individuals began tossing stones at it. We don’t want to disrupt their normal routine, or risk losing the chirocopter, so we decided to move closer and monitor the group ourselves.

The hike to this new campsite was worth the risk all on its own. Once we left the valley we’d landed in, we came to a short stretch of grassland followed by a surprisingly large patch of forested area. We kept in sight of a stream so we could easily replenish our water supplies, and eventually came to a lake that’s approximately one kilometer from one end to the other. Though we didn’t drag the sonar along with us, my guess is that the forest and the lake are supported by a fairly large aquifer. I’m including several botanical samples along with this update, as well as a list of tree and shrub species we identified around the lake. We also noticed a number of prints along the muddy edge of the water: cats, ungulates, small rodents, and, yes, what look to be hominins. Their feet were slightly smaller than either of ours, with longer toes, but they were undoubtedly the prints of bipedal individuals.  

Because we couldn’t carry all our food and research equipment and medical supplies and bedding, I’m planning on doing some foraging tomorrow. Evelyn and I will head back to the lake in the morning to survey the muddy lakebed for mollusks and try to catch some fish. Our cave is a safe distance from it, so we’re unlikely to be bothered by predators hanging out at the watering hole. Evelyn thinks we might also find some tubers and tiger nuts in the water. The starches might help temper the flavor of any mud-dwellers we catch. If we do manage to catch any. I was excited to put my experimental archaeology skills to use, but it turns out my stone-napping is a bit rusty. I managed to slice my fingers on the flakes, but finally turned out something that’s curved almost like a hook. Find a couple worms and we’ll be all set.

I expect we won’t be able to send back this report or any others for a day or two, until we make a trip back to the Dome, so fingers crossed we’ll have even more good news then. Maybe the drone can take a couple selfies of us with Mr. Upright!


Week 4, Day 4

from: Evelyn Willoughby

to: Pia Schuster

subject: Late night musings


I’m writing this by moonlight, with the sky half-obscured by clouds. Excuse the sloppiness of handwriting and any orthographic mistakes. My eyes are more owlish without artificial illumination, and I don’t want to wake Andrea. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but she’s an even lighter sleeper than you. Meanwhile I can (and have, if the trip across Mont Blanc counts) snore through an avalanche. I have no desire to deprive her of more sleep than this excursion already has; the tinge of exhaustion makes her more brash. At least she’s shown no irritability. During our training she said that was most likely to come if ever she were to get mildly dehydrated. Fortunately we’ve been well-supplied in water since arriving here.

As you may have guessed, I’m on watch at the edge of our cave shelter. So far the only visitors we’ve had are a handful of bats, three very large yellow and black spiders, their legs practically the length of my fingers, and two of the largest snakes I’ve ever seen—at least as long as I am tall. The arachnids, of course, were my undoing. I’ve placed my sleeping bag as far from their corner of the cave as possible without actually being outdoors. Each night I wrap myself so tightly in mosquito netting I feel as if I might suffocate. Andrea, on the other hand, has spent several hours sketching the spiders and observing their web formation and the hapless prey they feed on. Yet she positively started when I pointed out the first of the snakes before herding it back outside. You’d think I would be the one with ophidiophobia after that terrible bite, but I’m still more fascinated than repulsed. This seems a serious evolutionary failure on the part of my brain, but it certainly helps my ego to know that there is something that makes Andrea balk. Neither of the two snakes looked like the venomous species that we believe live in this area, so there was no real reason for concern.

The nadir of all my worried energy remains, as ever, the hominins living a kilometer or so from us. We’ve been in this cave three days and have already learned to time our explorations very precisely. First, we send out the Beetle to do a brief survey of the area. That’s what Andrea decided to nickname our tiny eBee single-wing autonomous drone, since it’s equipped with an infrared camera. I find it looks more similar to a swallow, or a hawk on the hunt, but she insists this nickname is appropriate since some beetles have infrared vision. I suppose it’s an improvement on her first suggestion of “Bed Bug,” chosen for the same reason. Frankly, it’s not an ability I want to think about those bloodsuckers using.

The Beetle is programmed to return when all heat signatures similar to our own have left the area. That’s when we head out. The hominins exploit the lake much more than we initially anticipated, so I’ve limited our foraging to thirty-minute-long intervals. It does making fishing a challenge, but Andrea has proven her skills by catching three small fish of a species we haven’t been able to identify. I’ve also collected a shirt-full of tiger nuts and we boiled those last night to go with the fish. After attempting to eat several, I can only say I understand how such plants might leave scratches on the enamel of teeth that last one million years. Thinking about eating them raw makes my jaw ache.

 Despite the Beetle’s best effort, it’s still impossible to determine where the hominins make camp at night. Andrea speculates it might be in a cave, where their heat signature is hidden. My hypothesis is that, like gorillas, they have no set dwelling and move from one location to the next with each passing night. We’re both eager to directly observe them hunting or scavenging a kill site, so we’ve spent several hours each day perched in the highest available trees to watch the action unfold. Plenty of lions, giant hyenas, jackals and leopards patrol the area, stalking herds of antelopes and the stray hog. But we have yet to spot a successful kill, and so the waiting continues.

A confession: I fell asleep in my tree for twenty minutes yesterday. Between the heat, the constant tension, the broken nights of sleep and the relative comfort of my seating, unconsciousness simply stole over me. I plan to start carrying caffeine lozenges in my bag. It would be just my luck to expend so much energy in keeping us out of harm’s way only to fall out of a tree and break my neck.

It’s nearly the end of my watch, and my eyes are aching. I’m off to wake Andrea up, then fall asleep and search for you in my dreams.

Dein ist mein ganzes Herz,