Field Notes Part 3, Week 3: Zhoukoudian


To: Otto Sommer
From: Evelyn Willoughby
Subject: Pleistocene Brews

Dear Otto,

Ever since I received your note with a recipe for Pleistocene brews, I’ve been eager to try my hand. But we were always too busy with work, and so I delayed responding to you. I thought it better to wait until I had some evidence to offer of our experimentation. Today, finally, I’m able to provide that insight. We’ve embarked on the fermentation process for our unusual concoction, created based on the instructions you provided. We’ll send a sample back to Mission Control; perhaps they’ll be willing to give you some as well! I can’t promise the end result will taste particularly good. Still, it will be interesting to learn which species of yeast we managed to catch. I confess, I’m also looking forward to drinking a mild intoxicant instead of herbal tea.

Unfortunately the only reason we’ve had time for such experiments is because Zhoukoudian has proven a disappointment for hominin research. I expected to find the landscape covered by traces of ancient humans; if not swarming with them in body, at least filled with their lithic tools. But we only stumbled upon the first cache of stone tools yesterday. They look markedly different than the technology we saw in Olduvai and Atapuerca, but I’m no expert in tool technology. It will be the job of Mission Control scientists to do further analyses. The most fascinating aspect of this discovery was the half-decayed cervid hide buried under a layer of dirt and debris, suggesting some of the tools were for processing animal skin. In this case, it seems the worker was forced to abandon the project. If only we could actually see one of these Erectines.

Andrea and I are tempted to use the Dome for miniature time hops. We wouldn’t move spatially, just temporally, by a year or a decade, opening the door after each jump to look for evidence of life. But Mission Control deemed this too costly for our fuel reserves. It’s also possible that we would find nothing; ten years or even a century are a blink on this timescale.

Still, I fidget. Impatience is not usually my undoing, but it feels strange to go so long without finding anything. Perhaps it was luck that we happened upon hominins in our previous locations. If we’d landed several months earlier or later, would the landscape have appeared empty?

I hope your own research continues to be fruitful, and I look forward to sharing the details of our primeval brew.

All best,


To: Mission Control
From: Andrea Chang
Subject: Enter the Pachycrocuta

Heyo MC,

I’d say things are heating up here, but it’s freezing outside and I’m seriously tired of wearing long underwear, so the metaphor doesn’t seem appropriate. But we did have our first epic encounter today! Evelyn and I were tromping through the snow, investigating fresh tracks and counting the species trapped in our bird nets, when the most ENORMOUS hyena came to stand at the top of a nearby hill. And I don’t mean in terms of height, but more in terms of build. It’s like you crossed a bull dog with a lion with a modern hyena and got this guy. Of all the wild things we’ve seen, this has been the most awesome and alarming. It didn’t slide down the hill and charge at us, even though it clearly noted our presence. Instead it just stood and watched.

Maybe it was hoping we’d leave some tasty carcass behind. Tough luck for the hungry hyena. Our nets didn’t hurt the birds and we set them loose again. Eventually it stalked off, leaving us to work in peace. Not gonna lie, I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it wasn’t following us.

Evelyn has the drone set to identify and track more hyenas in the hope that they’ll lead us to some hominin remains. Yeah, they’d be dead, but at least we’d have some material to work with. The idea of hoping for a hominin’s death feels morbid and heartless, but what else can we do? All our hikes and surveys have been a bust. Even the drone hasn’t found much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to study the resident fauna and local geology. But Evelyn would really like to see some more Homo erectus, and truthfully, so would I.

As for your concerns about our morale—well, yes, this particular location has been challenging in new ways. Neither of us is sick or injured, now that I’ve recovered from my head cold, but we have moved past the time-travel honeymoon stage and are sinking into the winter doldrums. Maybe you could send a few more tasty treats with the next supply drop? In the meantime, we’ll keep on keeping on and all that.

Till next time,
Andrea Chang