Field Notes, Week 2: Olduvai Gorge

Week 2, Day 2

from: Andrea Chang

to: Jun Nakamura

subject: So there was this saber-tooth cat…

Dear Jun,

You’re the very first person I wanted to write to, the minute we got here. But first we had to make reports to Mission Control (the gist of it: we emptied our stomachs and part of our small intestines, but all our atoms seem stuck together). Since then we’ve been so busy every day measuring the area and collecting samples, I’ve barely had a moment to catch my breath, let alone write to my best friend.

I miss you. Why couldn’t you have pursued a degree in archaeology or geology or dendochronology, something useful instead of dumb computer science? Didn’t I tell you the Silicon Valley start-ups were all run by hipster vampires? Maybe if you’d picked something else you’d be here with me instead of stick-in-the-mud Evelyn. Actually, that’s being harsh on mud. At least it’s viscous. At least it budges.

I know I shouldn’t complain. She’s the one who survived a reality TV experience on some desert island (though she refuses to talk about, and I’m like—why even bother being on a show like that if you don’t harvest the experience for great stories?!). She’s spent more time in the field than me. She has a much harder job. She makes the executive decisions, protects us from natural disasters, keeps us (read: me) from getting chomped by some ferocious feline—which is a very real possibility if the carcass we found is anything to go by. Our first hominin happened to be a dead one, of course. This honestly did scare me, considering what almost happened when I was out there.

But I’m going to dangle you in suspense until I’m all done griping. Clearly all turned out well, since here I am writing to you.

As I was saying. She has every reason to play it safe. Death, disfigurement, and maiming could come from several dozen sources out here. But I swear she’s so cautious it borders on paranoia. I’ve been forbidden from going off on my own except to our latrines. She insists we get back to the shelter before the sun even touches the horizon, and then we spend the hours before going to sleep organizing samples to take to the Mystery Box in the morning. We’ve collected lots of rocks, water samples, and botanical samples—including this amazing orange flower that looks like Canarina eminii—and the bits we collected from the dead hominin. The chirocopter drone recently discovered some forested areas with heat signatures that might also be hominins. And I might’ve discovered a new species of arachnid! He’s cute, the size of my thumbnail with crimped legs and blue stripes. I searched our database and couldn’t find anything like him. Back to the 21st century he goes tomorrow, along with this letter. I hope they let me name him!

There’s just so much more I want to do! How are we ever going to find any Homo erectus camps if we don’t go out there? I’m determined to uncover some proof that the Nutracker man (Paranthropus boisei, as he’s formally known) overlapped with Mr. Upright (i.e. Homo erectus). And if, God forbid, Evelyn says that’s too dangerous, I’d at least like to visit Mount Suswa to set up some insect traps and do a few wildlife surveys. I have a hypothesis that eruptions might have made things evolve more rapidly by isolating groups. You either adapt, or you die out.

Alright, I suppose I’ve stretched your patience long enough. Time for the cat story.

This was a week ago, right before Evelyn instituted the no-travel-alone rule. I’d hiked to a nearby freshwater stream to scope out the wildlife and was sitting in the shade with my sketch pad when a bush rustled nearby. I looked over my shoulder and there, just ten meters away, crouched a saber-tooth cat. At least that’s what I think it was. I thought I saw fangs, but they’re supposed to have disappeared from Africa half-a-million years ago. Anyway, you probably won’t be surprised that I didn’t have the presence of mind to really identify it. But it was huge and had striped brown fur and I’ve never felt so much like prey. My skin went very cold, and my heart jumped into turbo speed as we eyed each other. The lab techs developed this spray for us to wear that’s mostly odorless but is supposed to repulse carnivores, and maybe that’s why it didn’t attack right away. I also had my bear mace and ultra-high-voltage taser with me—I’m eager to be in the field, but I’m not stupid—and I pulled both out and shot a burst of mace at the cat. It wrinkled its nose, flattened its huge ears, growled and backed away.

I got lucky. I don’t want to trust my luck next time. Other good news: it didn’t seem to be hunting in a group. One, I could take. Maybe two. Not more. Clearly, if the poor dead hominin is any example. You can imagine just how horrified I was when we found it, and I saw in graphic detail what could’ve happened to me. But my excitement always overcomes my fear, and much faster than common sense suggests it should.

The moral of the story might be that Evelyn is right and I’m a grumpy badger. I didn’t tell her about the cat because the last thing I need is to give my expedition leader a heart attack. I promise I’ll do a better job listening to her and looking after myself, so you can yell at me for all the close calls when I get back.

Your friend thru time,


Week 2, Day 3

from: Evelyn Willoughby

to: Mission Control

subject: Week 2 Update

Ten days into the expedition we’re acclimating well to the Rift System environment. As suspected, there are adequate sources of freshwater near our camp, so we haven’t been overly reliant on the Dome’s recycling system. Our food supplies are holding strong; we discovered the cache left behind by the earlier Tipler Dome drop on our second day of reconnaissance. We are both in good health after recovering from the initial jump, and both have iron levels that are back to normal. We are both continuing to follow the prescribed regimen of anti-malarial, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial medications.

The only immediate obstacle at this point is complacency. Andrea worries we won’t find anymore hominins before our eight weeks are over and we jump to the next location and time. It’s true that the drones have yet to positively identify any hominin encampments, and our ground-penetrating radar surveys haven’t turned up anything useful, but it’s still early into this first leg of our journey. I wanted to use the X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy machine so we can at least gain an idea of where the hominins might have been recently, but the device broke during our jump back. If the engineers send instructions on how to repair it with the next resupply drop, I’ll try to get it working.

I do wish a larger group could’ve traveled here. I understand the reasons for limiting our team to two, the increasing risk that comes with every additional person. But the obstacles that prove so difficult to such a small crew would easily be overcome by a group of five or six. Field exploration, for example. We’ve been hindered by the need to travel together for safety. It’s a necessary precaution, given what we saw of the hominin remains. But even with robotic assistance—the chirocopter and eBee drones—we can only get so far each day. I hesitate to move our campsite without a clear reason as to the advantages of doing so. The farther we are from the Tipler Dome, or as Andrea affectionately calls it, the “Mystery Box,” the more exposed we make ourselves to predators, and the more our presence might scare off other hominins. How are we to know whether they’ll see us as more successful hunters, as threats to themselves? There are so many things that might go wrong.

You’ll see from the samples that despite some disagreements over how to explore the region, we’ve been highly productive. I remain optimistic about our chances of observing Homo erectus in its native environment, perhaps by encountering a scavenging group. In the coming days, we’ll set the drone to keep an eye out for any grazers taken down by local carnivores. My hope is that in visiting the kill site after the largest feeders have eaten their full, we may observe scavengers in action, including our hominin relatives.

I’ve attached our field log from the week below this note. Please advise if any samples fail to come through.

Field leader Evelyn Willoughby