Field Notes Part 2, Week 5: Atapuerca

Week 5, Day 1 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Kholwa Mbatha
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Secrets and safety


I have fallen on the sword of secrecy. We all keep secrets, of course. As children, from our parents. As adults, from our friends. But when Pia and I married, we promised never to hide things from one another. An impossible vow to keep? Perhaps, especially if one defines the occasional well-meaning white lie as a secret. Yet I believe that, till now, we have fulfilled that vow. Neither of us ever expected to be separated by hundreds of thousands of years. Now the equation has changed. Now I’m not sure how to keep my promises.

This afternoon Andrea and I returned to the Dome with a bucket full of bones from a nearby butchery site. We were both excited by the find, eager to send things back to Mission Control, giddy with the warm, dry weather. Every day here without rain and fog is cause for celebration. But then I noticed something both tantalizing and terrifying: footprints, five distinct pairs of them, going in circles around the Dome. Some of the dirt on the machine had been scratched away, though the machine itself was perfectly unharmed and still disguised with its camouflage. Even so, the evidence was clear: the hominins of the area know something is here, something unusual, and they’ll be monitoring us.

Here we come to my quandary. Pia has been extremely concerned about my wellbeing ever since we arrived in Atapuerca. Understandable, given my illness upon arrival. But her worries have grown disproportionate to the actual risk, at least to my mind. She is adamant that I should avoid any further direct contact with ancient hominins, that I’m placing myself and Andrea in harm’s way, and even that Mission Control should consider sending weapons with which to defend ourselves. She knew this mission was dangerous when I signed on—but knowing something isn’t the same as accepting it. In the interest of keeping her from undue alarm, I’ve decided not to share this latest development. Am I wrong in hiding it? Am I wrong in wanting to protect her? What else can I do?

Lest you yourself start fretting over me, allow me to reassure you that I’ve taken concrete steps to keep both of us safe. One of Andrea’s camera traps caught the line of hominins marching up to the Dome with what I’d call an air of curiosity. Admittedly I’m interpreting those facial expressions according to my own experience, which can’t perfectly map over the social cues of these hominins. They are large and muscular, with sharp weapons: spears and large stones. Would they have used them if we appeared?

To prevent being taken unawares again, we’ve rearranged the traps to form a perimeter around the Dome. The cameras will alert us to any movement by large creatures. This unfortunately means we’ll also get notifications whenever a deer or wild horse trots by, but at least we’ll be prepared. We’ve also moved out of our encampment in the caves. I’m not happy to be back in the stifling Dome, but it’s safer. And now, we sit back and wait for the locals to come to us. Andrea isn’t thrilled, but I still feel more excitement than anxiety.

It has been so wonderful receiving your letters. I wish you could be here to see what we’ve seen. I’m sure it would thrill you. If you have any advice at all on the subject of P, please don’t hesitate to share it.

Your friend,

Week 5, Day 3 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Plea for an early removal

First of all, thank you to the lab crew for your speedy work in analyzing the tissue samples we sent along. I know the results are still preliminary and more work needs to be done, etc. etc., but I think we have at least one clear answer: both the local Cervidae populations and the hominins are suffering from prion diseases. And despite what Evelyn might say about the precautions we’ve taken, I think we’re clearly in more danger than we were in Olduvai.

Let’s look at the evidence: humans and animals around us are dying of what might be a transmissible disease; the disease causes irrational behavior; the hominins know where we sleep at night; and they’re also definitely eating one another. Yes, it seems to be cultural cannibalism, rather than starvation or violent behavior. No, that doesn’t make me feel any better, because we still represent a great unknown to them. And the hominin groups are larger and more numerous here in Atapuerca, and there are only two of us!

I know it sounds drastic, but I propose we jump to Zhoukoudian several weeks early. What else are we going to get out of staying here? We’ve already collected samples from the hominins and the local fauna. We’ve done weather measurements and mapped some of the local geology. We know a little bit about the hominin culture. DNA testing can tell us more about their relationship to the Neanderthals and Denisovans, and maybe even where they migrated from. Leaving early means we might miss out on opportunities to directly interact with them, but on the upside, it also means we won’t get killed and eaten. Pros and cons, people.

It seems to me that the one thing Evelyn really wants to know is where these people came from, how closely (if at all) they’re related to the Erectines, and how long they’ve been in this region. But those questions are almost impossible to answer definitively—it’s not like she can go up to them and start asking about their family history. Basically, it doesn’t seem like she can get the information she wants, and I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve collected on my end. Can we go see the Asian Erectines now, please?

Oh, and I’ve attached the most recent insect survey here. I’ll say this for Atapuerca, they’ve got some great bugs.

Till next time,