Field Notes Part 2, Week 7: Atapuerca

Week 7, Day 2 — Atapuerca Mountains, Site 2

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Lost but soon to be found

Dear Pia,

It seems I’m now firmly in the habit of writing you letters late at night from various impenetrable wildernesses. Yes, once again, we are out beyond the Dome. Yes, I am on watch at the entrance of a small cave. Yes, love, I’m carrying mace and a taser should a hungry panther come prowling. But tonight there’s a new variation on our old game, which renders the situation slightly more precarious. I won’t worry about alarming you, because if you receive this letter, you already know we’re well. So to be blunt: for the moment, we are completely lost.

Several days ago Andrea was bitten by some kind of small rodent with presumably toxic saliva, as her entire hand quickly swelled up. We have several anti-venoms in our medical supplies, but I couldn’t be sure which one would work. Pooling our limited knowledge on the subject, we decided to treat it similarly to how we’d treat the bite of a modern venomous shrew, then sent word to Mission Control of the incident. Either our gamble paid off or the dose of venom was so small that it ran its course in 24 hours, because Andrea was mostly recovered by the next day. And, feeling relieved at this outcome, she agreed that we should do a day-long survey of the landscape as soon as the drone had completed its own reconnaissance mission. We only have two weeks in this new spot; I’d like to learn as much as possible in those 14 days.

This morning we left the Dome equipped with all our surveying gear, ready to do a combination bio-blitz and landscape mapping. We managed to find the remains of five hominins in one cave, all long-dead and reduced to bones, as well as a tool cache and traces of a fire. Andrea identified several dozen species in the forest and the nearby river. The sun felt so warm on my skin, the air so clear in my lungs, that I gave in to Andrea’s giddiness and agreed to hike further and further along the mountain range. We snacked on jerky and nut bars and sporadically visited the river for water, and both of us felt a lightness that’s been absent for many weeks. But then I realized the sun was arcing toward the horizon in the west and our shadows were growing long.

We turned around and walked in what we believed to be the direction of the Dome. But hours of backtracking only resulted in stumbling across our own recently-laid footprints; the hills and valleys of the landscape make it impossible to walk straight in one direction. With the onset of full darkness we found a shallow, unoccupied cave and are taking shelter here for the night. I’m not overly concerned about this setback. Tomorrow we’ll follow the river instead of relying on landmarks. I’m sure it will lead us back to the Dome, which is located not far from its bank.

Pia, I promised myself I wouldn’t bother addressing your nonsensical worries concerning my letters to Kholwa, but I’ve changed my mind. I wanted to be angry, but I can’t, not out here with the night sky watching me. You’re afraid for me, and your fear has made you suspicious. She and I are old friends, nothing more. You will always be foremost in my heart.

Ich liebe dich.

Week 7, Day 4—Another hidey-hole in the Atapuerca Mountains

To: Michael and Deborah Chang
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Don’t freak out, but there were some wolves

Dear Mom and Dad,

Look, I’m writing you first of all, before I even send a note to Mission Control, because Jun apparently can’t keep his mouth shut and I really don’t want to give either of you a heart attack when you hear secondhand about things that have been happening. I don’t know if Mission Control will actually deliver your letter first, but let the record show that I tried.

Two days ago, Evelyn and I set out for a big hike around this new area. The weather was beautiful, we found lots of cool stuff, and absolutely nothing tried to attack, stampede, bite, sting, or eat us for an entire 24 hours. And it did end up being a journey of 24 hours because we got a little bit lost on the way back and had to spend the night in a cave. I take the blame for that one. I was leading and got distracted by the strangest fungi I’ve ever seen before—you know I like to pretend I’m an amateur mycologist—and somehow led us in a circle. Anyway, we passed the night in shifts and it was just fine and we got up in the morning and headed to the river and were following it back when we came across a pack of wolves drinking from the same body of water.

I’ve always thought wolves only attacked people in the dead of the Russian winter when they were starving, but apparently that assumption doesn’t apply to Pleistocene Spain. There were eight of them, and only two of us, and these wolves were scary big. They formed a circle around us and our predator-repelling pheromones were having zero effect and I was thinking, Ok, if we swim away maybe they won’t follow us. Evelyn sprayed a ring of mace around us, which sort of worked but didn’t seem like a longterm solution, and let me tell you, I did not want to get close enough to use a taser on any of those shaggy beasts. My heart was pounding and I just wanted to run like I’ve never wanted to run before, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually ever believed I’d die on this expedition. Obviously I know it’s a possibility, but some things you just don’t believe until they’re right in front of you. Now I had to believe in my mortality.

But then a group of five hominins came charging out of the forest with spears, attacking the wolves so effectively that four were dead before we could move. The remaining wolves ran off to lick whatever injuries they’d sustained and one of the male hominins approached us. His face, chest and hands were covered in blood, and he was taller than Evelyn and carrying a very sharp spear.

How Evelyn snapped her brain into action after all that is a mystery to me. I still hadn’t gotten my heart under control, let alone figured out what to do next, but she just slid her backpack around and pulled out some jerky and dried fruit to offer the man. He set his spear down and accepted the food. She mimed eating and he did so, cautiously at first, then with enthusiasm. He sort of signaled for us to join his group, and so we sat and watched them butcher the wolves, cutting big hunks of meat and removing the skins. The smell of blood and organs flooded the air, but beneath it I could also still catch the scent of the hominins, their sweat and breath.

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to another species of human. Before this, I thought it might be like seeing gorillas in the wild. It most definitely was not. Their skin is bare of fur, their faces aren’t like ours, but they’re not not like ours. And their hands! You just don’t realize how miraculous these appendages are until you see some other species welding sharp rock cutters in their own large, capable hands.

We walked with the hominins for a while, Evelyn in full observation mode, me just trying not to panic, and then separated to head back to our respective dwellings. But they gave us some of the wolf meat, and we gave them more of our food, and now, somehow, we’ve made “friends” with this new group.

I still haven’t wrapped my head around all this. I had nightmares about the wolves last night. Any strange noise outside the Dome sends my heart on an adrenaline kick. But also—I want to see the hominins again. I want to know if they ever have contact with the other groups. I want Evelyn to continue her research. Basically, I want to stay here in Atapuerca. Who’d have guessed it?

Lots and lots of love,