Field Notes Part 2, Week 8: Atapuerca

Week 8, Day 4 — Atapuerca Mountains, Site 2

To: Mission Control
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Experimental archaeology and time-traveling taphonomy

With a mere four days left in our stay here in Europe, I have been busy digging graves. Not for any of the surrounding hominins. I’ve started with several small animals ensnared in Andrea’s traps. Next, a handful of the beads we received from the group that traded with us at our last location. Consider this my experiment in taphonomy. I’ll mark the spot precisely on our maps. Perhaps you can send modern researchers to the location to unearth whatever has survived the passage of 700,000 years. Will the bones of these little animals show evidence of their deaths? Will they fossilize, or disappear? Will the beads even survive over such a long period? Some seem to be made of bone, but others are a clay that I suspect will quickly deteriorate.

I’ve buried the objects in several different sediment types; the full experiment details are recorded in the attached document. I do hope this proves useful and can offer new insight into the fossilization process.

Our days have been calm since the incident involving the wolves. No sight of the hominin hunting party that came to our rescue, nor of any other groups. Andrea has found footprints, but they’re old and dry. Several nearby caves hold hominin remains in their bellies, these ones untouched by anything but the process of decay. Why cannibalism appeared in the first location and not here is a mystery. But considering the sheer quantity of deceased hominins, I assume that their numbers are relatively large, and cultural practices may vary widely between groups. If I could only spend more time tracking them across the landscape to see where they come from, if they interact with other groups—but even with a time machine, our time is still finite.

We spent all of yesterday attempting to replicate the spears carried by the hominins at the river. Unlike in Olduvai, there have been few opportunities to retrieve discarded tools, so we’re going by memory. The wooden staffs were approximately 1.5 meters long, ending in a point that’s flattened on one side. We used some of the stone axes we’ve collected in various locations to hack branches off a nearby ash tree, then shaved away at the end in hopes of forming a sharp end. Neither of us were particularly successful; we need to see the real toolmakers in action. The drone has been buzzing around every day; maybe it will collect some footage before we leave.

Till then, a few more days of data collection and cave exploration. I’ll send a final report before we jump forward again, but don’t anticipate any further upheavals.

Field Leader Evelyn Willoughby

Week 8, Day 7 — The nice side of the Atapuerca Mountains

To: Noelle Ng
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: And that’s a wrap!

My lovely Noelle,

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the letter with pictures of baby Jade! She is perfect and adorably pink and squishy and I can’t wait to meet her in person. It cuts me up to no end that I’m going to miss the first 16 months of her life. Technically, from where I stand in time, I haven’t missed anything, since she won’t be born for another 700,000 years. But I’m ignoring the technicalities because they give me a headache.

The good news from here is that Atapuerca no longer feels like a supernatural horror-slasher film. We used the Mystery Box to hop to a new location and I am significantly less creeped out by this spot. Which is insane because we almost got eaten by wolves last week! I know you’d say something about my brain being broken, but even though I had nightmares, that experience was less terrifying than being surrounded by hominins that practice cannibalism. In that old spot, we were just waiting to see what happened. Maybe I’ve watched The Hills Have Eyes one too many times. Evelyn maintains we were never in danger in that first location, but she’s also glad we came here. Especially because we’ve made one last discovery.

Since being in Atapuerca, we’ve seen everything from rhinos to venomous shrews (you’ll have to ask Jun for that story), but the one animal I desperately wanted a glimpse of was Megaloceros giganteus, the giant deer. Fossils of them place their shoulder height just over two meters, and their antlers could weigh up to 90 pounds! Yesterday I found some tracks that looked like they’d come from a large cervid. I set up a camera trap in the area, then unleashed the drone. It came back in the evening with actual footage of a giant deer! Today, Evelyn and I went out in the same direction hoping to see one in the flesh. We’d been hiking for about an hour when we passed the opening to a large cave. And since caves always have “fun” things in them, Evelyn insisted we investigate.

The floor was covered in footprints and shards of stone. All the way at the back of the cave we found a deep shaft going down into the earth for tens of meters. And piled inside were hominin skeletons. At the risk of sounding inconsistent, I’ll say that this pit of bones was much less horrifying than partially decomposed bodies. We couldn’t tell if any cannibalism had taken place just from looking at them—you need to do a more thorough analysis of markings on the bone to tell if they’ve been butchered. What the pit does imply is some type of burial. At the very least, the living hominins are moving dead bodies here; they didn’t just commit mass suicide, or all happen to trip and fall into this huge hole. And if this really is a sort of graveyard, it might push back the date for hominin burial practices by several hundred thousand years!

Evelyn is over the moon, obviously. I’m still a little bummed we didn’t see a giant deer, but I can admit this was a good trade off. All in all, I guess Atapuerca wasn’t so bad.

Lots of love,