Field Notes Part 2, Week 6: Atapuerca

Week 6, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Atapuerca Assessment—Our hominin neighbors pose no threat

Before I embarked on this expedition, I was occasionally drawn into the old argument over violence and human nature. How many have posited that a cornerstone of our species is our propensity for savagery? Sometimes accidental, often in regard to the battle for resources, but always a key element in shaping our evolution. Lord Tennyson’s Man may pit himself against Nature’s red tooth and claw, but clearly it is often humankind that demonstrates such vicious tendencies. How can I push back against this line of thinking, especially in the presence of cannibals? Who am I to interpret non-violence in a single encounter, when the seeds of bloodshed may have been planted?   

Yet that is the argument I am making. Today we directly encountered the hominins of Atapuerca, and nothing but good came of it. Andrea has sent along her response to the encounter already, which she shared with me. I understand some of her fears, truly. But as the field leader and anthropologist of our team, I ask that you consider my version of events as well as hers. I do not believe we are in danger. I certainly do not think we should leave this site earlier than planned.

The camera traps alerted us to the approach of eight hominins shortly after 9:05 standard travel time. In the recorded images, three came armed, while the remaining five carried a blurry assortment of innocuous items. As they came closer to the Dome, we could see that these items included meat, unworked stones, a small pouch, and a basket of some kind of fruit. After quick deliberation, Andrea and I decided to venture outside the Dome armed with our tasers and a handful of dried meat.

Although it’s tolerably warm here in Atapuerca, the hominins wear animal skin tunics that come down to their thighs but leave their arms and legs bare. Their skin is dark, though not so dark as that of the Erectines, and their hair is a looser coil than their African relatives. Their bodies are built on heavier frames, but that could also be the effect of more abundant food sources. Even with these differences, the kinship seems evident.

Thanks to video footage, we’ve witnessed several members of the group moving with an unsteady gait, prone to outbursts of noise and tumbling over. These individuals must be cared for by the larger group, but they weren’t present today. All our visitors looked healthy—and entirely respectful. They stopped several meters from us and, one by one, set down their goods. I approached slowly, cautiously, and offered the same beef jerky I’d given the Erectines. This was accepted with what appeared to be great delight. The small pouch contained a handful of beads and the fruit looked like something akin to plums. I was of course thrilled to see the clay beads, because they look like no material that we’ve seen in this area. Evidence of trade from even further abroad? I hope your ongoing lab analyses will be able to tell us more.

It is clear from all this that the hominins know where we live, that they feel comfortable with our presence, and, presumably, they know they outnumber us. None of these facts make me nervous for our safety. Homo antecessor, if that’s what they are, have shown no sign of antagonism toward us. If anything, they’re being positively neighborly. I hope that you’ll take this into consideration in the decision about what we should do next.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 6, Day 6 — A new hill, but same old Atapuerca Mountains

To: Jun Nakamura  
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Of God and time-travel and venomous shrews

Hi Jun,

Evelyn told me today that every time we meet new hominins, she feels like an omnipotent god. And she hates that more than anything else. Her parents are missionaries, she said, and even well-intentioned missionaries are condescending. They have to believe their knowledge is more valuable than the knowledge of their subjects.

Me: But isn’t science the same way? I know some hella arrogant scientists.

Evelyn: Real science is an act of assassination. We test and retest and try to break the work of others. Only when something stands up to repeated attacks is it taken as correct. But religion is an act of faith. It is choosing to believe despite all lack of proof.

Me: That’s beautiful and everything, but also, maybe—and I say this with love and respect—you could have talked about this with the Mission psychotherapist? Because it sounds like you’re working through some serious issues and 700,000 years in the past is probably not the best environment to have a personal crisis.

Evelyn: She told me I was a work in progress. And to write more poetry.

So. Things I’ve learned today: Evelyn grew up with a bit too much Jesus; Evelyn writes poetry (and here I thought she was scribbling about all the ways I was a pain in the ass—though I suppose the one doesn’t preclude the other); and Evelyn was bred to have a savior complex. This explains a lot. Like why she felt so guilty over the Erectines when we left Olduvai (sweet Olduvai, how I dream of you!). Or why she was adamant that we stick around our original landing site here to monitor (read: help) the local hominins. It was only after this conversation that she finally agreed with Mission Control’s advice that we hop 20 km away in the machine.

It was just a spatial jump, not a temporal one, though I have to say, even that bit of travel is enough to cause motion sickness. I wonder if the physicists would be able to explain how the Mystery Box works after a ride in it. Anyway, we’re now in a different part of the mountain range, ready to make new observations. The hop didn’t affect our fuel supplies much. At least, it won’t hinder our journey forward in time, but we probably can’t do another spatial jump again once we’re in a new location, because then we’d be edging too close to the danger zone. Even though we’ll be more limited in the future, I feel optimistic for the first time since we’ve been in Atapuerca.

Or I would, if not for the fact that my right index finger is swelling so much it looks like one of those foam hands you put on for sports events. It’s lucky I’m left-handed, or I wouldn’t even be able to write you this fun letter!

I can see you shaking your head. What’s she gotten herself into now?! you’re asking yourself. But this time it really, truly, definitely was an accident. The kind I could not have prevented by being more prudent. I mean, unless I hadn’t joined this mission.

Ok, I’ll just explain. So we spent the morning packing up all our gear, then landed at our new site, and I decided to set up the rodent traps and all the cameras, because I’m supposed to be collecting new data, right? There I was, just working on one of the rodent boxes—for catching, not killing—and this tiny little guy jumps out of some scrub, buries his teeth in my knuckle, then scurries away before I can react. I’d say he was cute except I’m pretty sure he was also venomous, and I feel like that cancels out the cuteness.

Evelyn gave me some medicine for the pain and I don’t seem to be losing any motor function, so I’ll probably be just fine. Which means you have no reason to worry, and you especially have no reason to write my parents and tell them anything about this.

Your foam-fingered friend,