Field Notes, Week 3: Olduvai Gorge

Week 3, Day 4

from: Andrea Chang

to: Deborah and Michael Chang

subject: Smoke signals!

Dear Mom and Dad,

We saw smoke today! And almost certainly not from lightning or brush fires, because it hasn’t stormed in three days. We’re one million years back in the past, and we’ve seen literal smoke signals, and that means we’re probably only about six kilometers from what might be fellow hominins! I’m sure you’re both thinking up worst-case scenarios already, or picturing something like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but no need to worry just yet. Evelyn is fastidiously cautious in all her decisions. She kept me from sprinting in that direction. Not that I would’ve sprinted. Running that fast is noisy. I would’ve approached gingerly. But it’s a moot point, as we were nowhere near enough for any fire-making creatures to hear us.

The way it happened was like this: We’ve found a good dozen handaxes at this point, and a pile of manuports, which are unshaped stones that don’t match the local geology. They’re the raw material for toolmakers, and presumably get transported to the hearth area from some stone formation farther away. If the idea of hearths even exist yet. We’re still not sure if Homo erectus were nomadic hunter-gatherers who never stayed in one place longer than a week, or if they had more long-term home bases. Answering that question might point us in the direction of more discoveries about culture and social structures, things that are in Evelyn’s wheelhouse.

Anyway, we were hiking to a stand of trees where Batty (that’s what I’ve named our drone, seeing as he’s disguised to look like one) had spotted nocturnal heat signatures when we saw the smoke. The landscape is uneven here, full of inclines and divots, so it’s hard to make anything out unless you’re standing on a tall hill or up in a tree. I wanted to investigate immediately, but Evelyn thought it would be safer to send Batty first. She said there might be dozens of them, and they might take us as threats, and they’re undoubtedly better outdoors-people than we are, so they’d probably track us straight back to the shelter. It was the better idea, I know. But we’d forgotten Batty’s remote control device, so we couldn’t send him out until we got back, and then it was another couple of hours before he came back with his video data. The fire was out, and there were no more hominins on the ground. It looks like they did leave behind some animal bones and piles of feces, so we’ll head there tomorrow once Batty gives us the all-clear. Can you imagine sampling million-year-old stool that’s actually only a day old?! I’ve never been so excited about poop before! We’ll learn so much about their diets!

Seeing as we might be on the verge of making contact with our ancient cousins, I am definitely having some trouble calming down enough to sleep. We’ve seen an amazingly diverse array of animals that are extinct in the 21st century (Evelyn and I were playing Pleistocene Bingo and she just nudged me out yesterday when we saw a Kolpochoerus limnetes, which is this super ugly hog, with huge tusks curving up around its snout and bulgy bone flaring out beneath its eyes), but it still hasn’t entirely sunk in that we might see other living hominins. It’s like getting ready to make first contact with aliens. Here we are on this blue marble of a planet, just Evelyn and I out here, and yet we’re not alone. Creatures almost like us, who might be almost as intelligent and social as us, live all around. It’s thrilling and terrifying and surreal all at once.

Alright, I’m going to ask Evelyn if she’ll share her meditation recordings. Maybe that’ll calm me down a bit. Thanks for sending us back with dehydrated brownies! We just had the last ones today, to celebrate surviving more than 20 days in the past. I love and miss you both!



Week 3, Day 4

from: Evelyn Willoughby

to: Pia Schuster

subject: Change on the horizon

Pia, my love,

Andrea just requested the loan of my “meditation recording thingy” so she could try and calm herself after what was indeed a thrilling day. She tried writing a letter to her parents, she said, and that didn’t quite do the trick. She was “too wired up” to even attempt sleeping.

I gladly shared my pod-play device, though now I could use some meditation myself. If only I’d downloaded multiple copies of that app before we left. One for her pod as well. Far too late for that now. Internet service won’t exist for another .99 million years.

Pia, you can understand more than anyone how envious I am of her relationship with her parents. I wish I could send letters to mine, or know that they were looking after you while I’m away. I would’ve loved a batch of my mother’s honey cookies to take for the journey back. Please tell me, after you’ve read this letter and had your own approved by Mission Control to send back with the next resupply drop, if you think I ought to send them a note. If they’re even at the same address. I guard hope like a single red ember. Someday they might change their minds about me. About us.

I’d like to blame stress for this mood I’m in, but truthfully, I’ve never been more pleased with our work. In three weeks we’ve done a general survey, set up a small weather station to collect data, tagged and sampled so much organic material it could fill a community museum. I hope Mission Control is keeping everything under tight quarantine. The last thing our Earth needs is an invasive species time-jumping. I’ll never understand the urge to resurrect the mammoths. Don’t we have enough ecological conundrums on our hands without worrying about how a previously-extinct species would take to a strange new world?

Today we sighted a plume of smoke, the black ash rising into the sky like a beacon. Once again I had to prevent Andrea from shooting towards it, but this time I wanted to go charging forward nearly as much as she did. It was a struggle to stay cautious and composed. It was a thrilling sign of hominin life after our earlier encounter with death.

The only thing I can point to for this foul miasma of discontent are the anti-malarial tablets. I am grateful we have such medicines to take, of course. I’ve known far too many field researchers with horror stories about botflies and kissing bugs and ticks. But the pills always upset my stomach and disrupt my mind. I feel unmoored. As if I were tightrope walking between two worlds, the one I’m in and the one I left behind, and neither one is quite real. The only thing that feels real now is my memory of you, your body next to mine, your breath against my hair. “All that touches us, you and me,/ takes us, together, like the stroke of a bow,/ that draws one chord out of the two strings./ On what instrument are we strung?/ And what artist has us in their hand?”

A mad artist indeed, to separate two lovers by time itself.

Wishing you could explore this same land with me,

            Your Evie