Field Notes Part 3, Week 2: Zhoukoudian

WEEK 2, DAY TWO—Zhoukoudian

To: Pia Schuster
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Walking with wolves

Dear Pia,

We’ve spent the last three days tracking a pack of small wolves, likely members of Canis variabilis. Glimpses of them appear through the trees, chasing down pika and hare. Sometimes in the evening they creep into our campsite in search of tidbits. Unlike the wolves of Atapuerca, these canids are diminutive and harmless. One could almost imagine them rolling onto their backs, ears flopping, waiting for an obliging human to provide scratches. Andrea wants to monitor their behavior and possibly collar one of them. She wonders if this species has ever interacted with local hominins, if the wolves may even have adopted some traits seen in domesticated dogs. But whether the hominins themselves are exerting any domestication pressure is impossible to say. We’ve seen none.

Our days are strenuous. Hiking over steep hills, scrambling up the rocky portions, eyes on the ground in search of artifacts. The weather is cool verging on cold. No more snow since our first day, but pockets of white cling to the roots of coniferous trees. A thin glaze of ice crackles on all the ponds we come across. The sun goes down early at this latitude. Couldn’t we have visited each location when it was the summer, locally speaking? Andrea wanted to know. I understand the rationale for seeing different seasons, but agree that milder weather would be a boon. The work days are too short now; we spend evenings bundled in our tent, telling stories.

All these weeks we’ve spent together without approaching the subject of our childhoods. Well, you know why I’m reticent to discuss my parents. I’ve told her about past research expeditions, ski trips in the Alps, how the two of us met. The expression on your face when you discovered a live worm convolving through your chocolate mousse—that mingle of shock and curiosity—is part of what made me love you. (Is the café owner still giving you free espressos in reparations for that gustatory horror?)

She, in turn, has told me about her time in Southeast Asia, the friends she met while at uni, the inspiration for her video blog. But all discussion of our lives before the age of 20 seemed verboten, for the never-articulated but always-obvious sake of propriety. On a mission such as this, living and working with one single person for more than a year, it seemed necessary to draw lines between the personal and the professional.

But our experiences in Olduvai and now Atapuerca changed something. Yesterday evening, after watching a herd of rhinoceroses thunder through a nearby valley, Andrea turned to me and said, “I saw a man kill a rhino when I was six.”

Her family had gone on vacation to Tanzania, she said. A safari was the highlight of the trip, until their tour operator ran across a second tour group, this one escorting trophy hunters around the reserve. Not illegal poaching, of course, but people who pay fees to kill the old or infirm animals. Poor Andrea, little animal-lover, had nightmares for months after seeing one of the men shoot a rhino. That was when she decided to study animals, she said. To find ways of honoring the dead ones. No dinosaurs for her; she wanted to understand the fauna that inhabited the Pleistocene world, those impacted by the evolution of our species.

I look at this young woman who gave up so much to be on this mission, who helped me recover when I was sick, who listens to my hopes and fears for our expedition, and I am grateful. If I have to spend 64 weeks in the company of only one person, I am glad that person is her.

All my love,

WEEK 2, DAY FIVE—Zhoukoudian

To: Jun Nakamura
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: At least nothing is trying to eat me

Hi Jun,

My nose is so clogged that it’s impossible to do anything but mouth-breath, my head is pounding, my stomach has become a roiling sea of mucus, and I can’t even taste the delicious snacks Mission Control sent as an apology for putting us on a diet last week. How the heck do I even get a cold when I live 600,000 years in the past?! I’m no virologist, but I didn’t think rhinovirus hung around in the woods like the Big Bad Wolf waiting to infect Little Red with a runny nose. Evelyn hasn’t caught it from me yet, thank God, but we’re completely out of tissues, and the portable composter doesn’t handle them well anyway, so I’ve resorted to using her handkerchiefs. Yes, she has a collection of handkerchiefs. Yes, they’re monogrammed. Yes, I have to wash my snot out of them by hand.

This is why I’ll never have children. Cute as they are, I don’t think I could handle the boogers. How do our bodies produce so much mucus?!

It’s times like this when I am desperate to come back to the 21st century. I want a squishy couch to lay on, a few Netflix shows to binge, and copious amounts of tea. I can’t even get comfortable in the Mystery Box, because OF COURSE I fell ill while on a camping expedition. Do you know how much work it is to make a cup of tea in the wilderness? Or how uncomfortable tents are when your face wants to explode? On a scale of paper-cut to accidentally-rubbed-your-eyes-after-chopping-habaneros, I am approaching habanero levels of misery.

The tiny sliver of good news is that we’ve found a troop of macaques and observed them eating mushrooms! This isn’t so surprising in itself, but when I investigated fungal fruiting bodies, I discovered they were neon blue. Normally such bright colors would make me think, Poison. But maybe the macaques are immune to it? Or maybe they’re all tripping and that’s part of why they like the mushrooms. We’ll find out when we get back to the Mystery Box and send some samples to Mission Control.

I suppose the other silver lining is that Evelyn is doing her best to keep my spirits up. She’s disappointed we haven’t found anything hominin-related—no tools, no prints, no bones or bodies—but she’s stayed enthusiastic about the survey work. And at night, she tells me all about her childhood. Growing up with missionaries, moving around to different countries in Africa, speaking a handful of languages. Her life is fascinating, but you’d never know it because she’s so reluctant to talk about that part. I think she had a falling-out with her parents over her marriage, so it makes sense that it’s painful. But I like learning about this side of her. It makes her seem less like a hard-ass field leader and more like a complicated human.

I miss you so so so much! Please write quickly and tell me more about the “depressing news” of the real world, and maybe send a picture of your dog to make me feel better about it.

Your sniffly friend,