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