Field Notes Part 2, Week 3: Atapuerca

Week 3, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control 
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Onward and upward

I’ll begin as instructed, with a health update: my fever has been gone for 72 hours and the headache lingers only around the occipital. Slight weakness still evident, appetite not as vigorous as normal, still overly tired. But overall, incredible improvements. It’s impossible to say which antibacterial, anti-parasitic, or anti-fungal produced these results. There were so many of each. Perhaps the whole assortment in conjunction wiped out the Olduvai contagion. Please let me know if further analysis unearths a culprit; learning I played host to some never-before-seen microbial life form would be some compensation. For now, I will content myself with feeling well—and avoid all uncooked meats in the future.

This morning Andrea and I set off on our first half-day excursion. Still no sign of life from our drone, but traces of the hominins’ presence are scattered across the landscape. We’ve uncovered four caches of lithic artifacts, each of them containing dozens of tools carved from sandstone, limestone, flint, and quartz. The majority fall into Mode 1: some flakes and a few cores, most of them less refined than the handaxes in use among the Olduvai Erectines (see the attached report for full details).

It being one of the rare dry days, we decided to venture beyond our immediate surroundings in search of a suitable spot for the tent. Both of us are in desperate need of a new sleeping space. The Dome is permanently imbued with the scent of our bodies and breath. Fortunately, we came upon a perfect cave, with a narrow opening that even the lithest bear couldn’t squeeze through. Erecting a barrier to keep out smaller predators should be easy enough, which will negate the need to swap guard shifts. Andrea did warn that she saw the fecal pellets from some small rodent (Mimomys savini, she hypothesized). Those little teeth will be more than capable of chewing holes in our gear. We’ll set traps around the tent if we bring it there.

The only other incident of note occurred on the walk back to the Dome. We were picking our way across a shallow stream that ran through a picturesque valley when a sound like thunder alerted us to the approach of some large ungulates. Andrea reacted more speedily, boosting me into a nearby tree, then scrambling up herself. We hung in those low branches as pebbles bounced and earth shook. Then, the herd: over a dozen rhinoceroses being chased by two jaguars. The rhinos tossed their horned heads in agitation, bashing against protruding rocks and shrubs. The large cats dashed after them so quickly they didn’t notice us in the tree, though I believe we both held our breath until all had gone quiet again.

They must’ve been Stephanorhinus etruscus. And in such a large group! Andrea was overjoyed to have witnessed their passage. Even accidentally stepping in a large pile of rhinoceros manure didn’t quell her excitement, though the smell hasn’t improved the aroma of the Dome.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 3, Day 6 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Michael and Deborah Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Surviving the unexpected

Dear Mom and Dad,

Evelyn is better, the weather has been sunny for three days straight, we’re sleeping in a tent again rather than the smelly Mystery Box, and we’ve found a collection of tools made from bone in one of the abandoned cave shelters. So cool! I should be skipping around like a squirrel in spring with all the exciting changes, especially considering how things were when we landed here. Narrowly escaping a volcanic eruption, miserably sick Evelyn, weird sounds in the night. But I’m not thrilled or optimistic. Remember when I was in high school and had that string of terrible nightmares, and I acted even moodier than usual the morning after they happened? That’s how it feels now. Like waking each day from a disturbing dream that I can’t recall. That sense of wrong-ness lingers until night and then it starts all over again the next morning.

It’s just that something about this place seems haunted. Take today for example. Evelyn and I were investigating the hills for more caves—there are so many of them! As we circled back to the area where we’d started, I noticed a tree that looked familiar. It’s a huge beech tree with a big black gash down its trunk, so it’s pretty unmistakable. And that was almost exactly where I was when I retrieved our little drone, Beetle, from the raptor attack and heard something moaning last week. I told Evelyn, expecting she’d say we should head back to our own cave and send the surviving drone back here for further investigations. But instead she said we should poke around ourselves. Has she totally forgotten the lessons from Olduvai??! No, she says, she just wants to make sure our own shelter isn’t too close to any other hominins, and it’s better to find out as soon as possible.

So down we went into a little ravine, creeping along as quietly as possible and poking our heads in the rocky fissures that we came across. After fifteen minutes we’d reached the end of the ravine and that nervous lump building in my throat started to go away when Evelyn said, “Hey, there’s something over here.”

A few weeks ago those words would’ve been music to my ears! But now—well, I guess I had good reason to feel apprehensive. We squeezed through the entrance to a cave that immediately opened to a much larger gallery. It smelled horrible, like rotting flesh and grease and old blood. We found a pile of charred sticks, and ash clinging to the ceiling where the fire seems to have been ventilated. And there, only a few feet away, was the body of a small child. Or what was left of it. Much of the flesh had been stripped away, and its arm was cut off completely. Evelyn didn’t identify the teeth marks of predators on the body—she thinks cuts like those came from stone tools. Some hominin toolmaker ate the child. Maybe survival cannibalism, maybe a cultural mortuary practice, Evelyn says. She’s unphased by the whole thing. Meanwhile I’m ready to hop back in the Mystery Box and never leave. I’m no expert in forensic anthropology, but I don’t think the child has been dead for more than a week. Which means someone ate it since we’ve been here.

I don’t want you to think Atapuerca is all Gothic horror-show, so I’ll leave you with a slightly more normal anecdote. Yesterday while taking a water sample from one of the ponds near our cave, for eDNA analysis, I spotted the most enormous turtle I’ve ever seen. It nearly bit my finger off when I reached the vial into the pond and looked grumpy at having missed a meal. I could’ve kissed it, if it wouldn’t have ripped my face off. Finally, something normal and fascinating and completely natural. I’ll never understand people who struggle to feel empathy for animals. They’re so much easier than humans.