Field Notes Part 2, Week 4: Atapuerca

Week 4, Day 5 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: This won’t be like last time


I understand your fears, really, I do. Though I cannot place myself in your situation, I empathize with the uneasiness you experienced while I was ill. Andrea offered daily proof of those sentiments. Her eyes upbraided me whenever I took on any taxing activities; every morning she brewed a ginger concoction for me, a remedy from her mother. And she is only a friend and colleague; her heart couldn’t be as roughly affected as yours. But I promise, I swear, now that I’m well again I won’t go chasing down trouble. This time around, things will be different.

You may well have guessed that the paragraph above is both response to your letter and prelude to my own tales. I picture you on the bay window seat, with a mug of black tea perched on the bookshelf beside you, leaving rings on the wood. Your brow is furrowed, you sigh in exasperation, you consider flinging a pillow across the room. How could you have married such a woman? Well I only hope you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me for all the worry lines I’ve induced with my expeditions.

Yes, we have seen more hominins. No, I have not approached them. It seems we’ve inadvertently stumbled into a pattern of finding first a dead hominin, then a living one shortly thereafter. (Yes, I realize that an event occurring twice hardly constitutes a pattern, forgive my misuse of the language). Our sighting came via drone footage, not firsthand. A trio of them marched down a ravine, carrying the bloody limbs of some large four-legged creature. The drone followed them all the way back to a cave located some five kilometers from our own, into which they disappeared. Perhaps more awaited within. It’s impossible to say if they belong to the group that produced the de-fleshed child we found last week, but if they do, that eliminates survival cannibalism as a possibility. Don’t worry, love, we’ll continue monitoring from a distance before venturing any closer.

In the meantime there are still three thousand things to be done. We’re attempting to map the various cave systems without disturbing any carnivorous residents. So far we’ve only happened on a stray wolf, though Andrea also came across a bear when I was sick. Nothing has penetrated the little barricade we erected in front of our own cave except for the occasional bat. Those we don’t mind—they chase down the mosquitoes. Andrea has trapped several to test whether they carry potentially zoonotic diseases. Horrifying. I stay far away during this work. It is such a joy to be healthy again. I won’t take it for granted, and I won’t jeopardize it anymore. If only I could have you here with me, my heart would be entirely content.

An ocean of love,

Week 4, Day 6 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Noelle Ng
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: The mystery of the footprints

Dearest dear Noelle,

It’s about time you sat your ass down and wrote me a letter! And girl, don’t expect me to buy into that “I’m more of a phone person” bullshit, I’ve been on way too many of your email chains. You know I don’t mind sloppy handwriting. If you’re really that self-conscious, just write the next one on a computer and print it out!

Alright, I’ll stop hassling you. I suppose having a baby probably cuts into your free time a bit, so you’re forgiven for neglecting to send any word during my first ten weeks in the past. At least you kept in touch with Jun, so he could let me know you were still alive. But now you’re obligated to send at least one letter a month. Maybe when Baby Jade is taking a two-hour nap and you’re waiting to switch the laundry. And next time tell me more about the actual baby and less about the state of your uterus. You know I love a good medical story, but I want to focus on being a good auntie, so I have to know exactly what I should be worried about in terms of the kid’s future.

Now that I know you’re recovered enough to write about something as gnarly as an episiotomy, I can tell you all about the drama here in Atapuerca. It basically boils down to 1) cannibalism, 2) of children, and 3) a weird disease affecting members of the hominin population. That third part is a new development, one we noticed from footprints. Evelyn and I are both wary of getting too close to the hominins until we understand the situation better, so we’ve been sending out our drone, Batty, and keeping as far away as we can. It was Evelyn’s idea to start looking for footprints—there’s so much mud from all the rain. Speaking of rain, I’ve got this weird fungal infection on my fingers from being out in the damp all the time—trench hand? Anyway, we went to scope out some footprints after the hominins had been scavenging from fruit trees and we noticed that several of the footprints were very uneven, as if the walker was stumbling all over the place. A bit further on, closer to their cave, it looked as if one person was actually dragged.

Old age, you’re probably thinking. But that’s not what it looks like on Batty’s video footage. The people stumbling around are no older than the other adults in the group. They also seem to have tremors, and produce these weird squawking noises. It’s bizarre and Evelyn thinks it must be some kind of neurological disease. More investigating needs to be done obviously, but I’m not gonna lie, I’d rather focus on the fauna.

As it turns out, they have their own issues. I’ve seen four different species of deer, and among all of them I’ve noticed individuals with listless eyes, drooping heads, and emaciated bodies. It looks an awful lot like chronic wasting disease, which I’ve never studied back home but have heard about. We’ll have to collect some urine samples, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for when one of them dies. But apparently I’m not the only one with an interest in deer, because we found a pair of antlers hanging in a tree near one of the hominin caves. Yeah, Evelyn calls it an exciting example of material culture, but to me—that looks like some spooky murder mystert nonsense. And we definitely have a few mysteries on our hands.

Lots of love to you and Jade,