Field Notes, Week 1: Olduvai Gorge

Week 1, Day 1

from: Andrea Chang

to: Mission Control

subject: Arrival and survival

Greetings from the Pleistocene! We’ve successfully arrived near Olduvai Gorge, exactly 1 million years before present (BP). The crazy thing is, it doesn’t look so much different from when I visited Tanzania for field school. Dusty red valleys and hills. Scrubby brush and stands of trees and mountains on the horizon. Enough old rocks to give the geologists work for weeks—though they’re a million years younger than they were for me yesterday. I thought the air at least would smell different. Cleaner. It’s not like I expected a herd of Pelorovis buffalo to go rumbling by, or that we’d land in the middle of some Homo erectus structures. But I did think something in me would feel unsettled by the jump back. Something in my psyche, that is. My physical body is absolutely feeling it. Maybe I’ve got time lag and my brain won’t judder into synch with the world till tomorrow.

The ride in the Tipler Dome felt pretty much like what it was: forcing a body through many millennia, against its will, and only barely keeping the cells from spinning off into individual identity crises because this is clearly not within the bounds of nature. I think a few of you know how the avian flu feels? Even without firsthand experience of that particular bug, I can say this was worse. My bones still feel like Play-Doh that’s been squished through an extruder to make spaghetti. My skin went hot, then so cold it was like I’d been doused in nitrogen. Meanwhile my stomach slingshotted around the planet in low Earth orbit even though I couldn’t really sense movement, so to speak. The combination of three-day fast and monthlong iron-removal diet seems to have saved us from internal bleeding; neither of us are exhibiting any symptoms. Though at this point I almost wish I’d just died and gotten it over with. I took my iron pill and drank the anti-nausea shake, but that’s about all I can stomach right now.

Evelyn is still walking circles around the campsite trying to get her head screwed back on. I’d join her if I could stand on two feet without falling over. Writing is about as far as I can get.

Since that was the longest jump back in time, I’m hoping it’s the worst of the symptoms. I’ll make note for the next jump forward to record whether the nausea goes away more rapidly, or if it even comes at all.

Unfortunately at this point there’s no way of knowing if we landed on the best day or week or year or century to make our observations. No sign of life yet except the trees and a few flying bugs. I’ll set traps tomorrow and try to locate the closest watering hole. There should be a perennial freshwater lake within of a few kilometers of here. Till then, it’s songs around the campfire and rehydrated rice and beans. Just as soon as the both of us relocate our stomachs.

Until next time,


Week 1, Day 5

from: Evelyn Willoughby

to: Pia Schuster

subject: Our first week

My love,

The sky weighs heavily on us this evening. Darkness has never felt so dangerous. I’m reminded of our dear Rilke, of course. “The first word that you ever spoke was: light. Thus time began. For long you said no more. Man was your second, and a frightening word, (the sound of it still shrouds us in its night).”

Man may be why we’ve come here, but he’s also the only creature keeping me awake with nerves. Herbivores could stomp through our campsite, hunters like the giant short-faced hyena may sniff their way to us in search of a midnight meal, venomous serpents and poisonous arachnids could creep into our enclosure—yet none of those frighten me as much as our first encounter with the Upright Man.

This morning, only our fifth day since arriving, we came across the chewed carcass of some hominin approximately 4 kilometers from our campsite. Its skull was covered in puncture wounds, its ribs torn open and organs devoured. Flies had obscured its features, but they scattered as soon as we approached. In the poor creature’s hand was a teardrop-shaped tool—a handaxe—and I found traces of fiber around its neck. Could it be decorative? A necklace? Or simply the wind having blown some debris onto it after death? Its remains were too torn apart for positive identification. I suspect it’s a Homo erectus, but its teeth are on the large side and its body on the small side, leading Andrea to suggest it might be Paranthropus boisei. A body is so much different than bones. The muscle, the skin, the hair—this was a real being. Not just an ancient skeleton.

We took a blood sample and will return to the remains for further study once it’s a less popular source of food. Several small hyenas were circling the area as we made our observations.  

The dead hominin isn’t particularly surprising: a clear example of predation by a large cat, with subsequent scavenging by other carnivores. No, what frightened me more than I expected was the leopard lying just beyond the hominin, stab wounds in its sides. Andrea believes it may have been a young adolescent hunting with its mother, as leopards usually hunt individually. The animal hasn’t been butchered in any way, though perhaps it will be. Something with tools killed that cat. Something that might’ve been fighting alongside the other hominin. Something that survived and escaped. If they can kill fanged, clawed wild animals, certainly they’d have no trouble killing us.

I’m trying to avoid apocalyptic thoughts and focus on more immediate challenges, such as reigning in Andrea’s impetuous impulses. Just yesterday she ventured to a nearby lake on her own. Without awaiting the results of the aerial survey from our chirocopter, disguised overnight in a cloud of bats. We planned on using the drone’s data to look for heat signatures around the area.

When Andrea returned, she reported that she’d found a small lake. Her cheeks were flushed. Excitement, and likely dehydration. The temperature hovers around 30 degrees C, and she’d forgotten to bring a water filter along with her Camelback pouch. When I expressed my concern at her departure and the need to coordinate our schedules, she merely pointed out that her radio had remained attached to her hip the entire time. “And you can always find me with that transponder thingy,” she added, referring to the bio-tracks they installed in our wrists.

We analyzed the chirocopter data together. There wasn’t much to see at that point. The drone picked up heat signatures for small mammals and what we guessed to be a pride of lions. But nothing at all humanoid. Even today, after we found the carcass, the drone hasn’t identified anything else in a 20km radius that might be a hominin. Perhaps the group to which our dead specimen belonged was traveling quickly through the area.

Even after our discovery today, Andrea still argues she should be allowed to undertake individual outings. She says we’ll cover more ground that way. I managed to argue her down. You know how dangerous excitement can be when out in the field. I remember that yellow-bellied sea snake bite, and everything else that went wrong on that damned survival reality TV show.

Part of my discomfort in ordering her around is that she already thinks me matronly. We both know I don’t have a single maternal bone in my body, but 41 may appear dowdy to a 30-year-old. For now, she sleeps, and seems unconcerned by the enormity of our undertaking.

Home for the moment is a spacious tent erected in the shelter of a shallow rocky depression. One couldn’t call it a cave; there isn’t a full roof above us. But its three walls do lessen the feeling of exposure. The grayish green fabric doesn’t entirely blend with the red rock of the gorge, but nearby trees provide some cover. The Tipler Dome remains in its landing spot, its chameleon skin working almost perfectly to help it blend into the landscape. The engineers and physicists agreed on little, but one of the things they did both conclude was that it should be nearly indestructible.

It’s nearing midnight, if wristwatches can still be trusted after a jump backward in time. I long to sleep, but in this wilderness before our species evolved, I find myself lonelier than I have ever been. To think that you won’t even be born for another one million years is more than my mind can fathom. Instead I’ll look at the moon. Even if the light from the stars has changed between us, the moon is our constant anchor. Watching it, I’m with you.

Gute nacht, mein schatz,