Field Notes, Week 2: Olduvai Gorge

Week 2, Day 2

from: Andrea Chang

to: Jun Nakamura

subject: So there was this saber-tooth cat…

Dear Jun,

You’re the very first person I wanted to write to, the minute we got here. But first we had to make reports to Mission Control (the gist of it: we emptied our stomachs and part of our small intestines, but all our atoms seem stuck together). Since then we’ve been so busy every day measuring the area and collecting samples, I’ve barely had a moment to catch my breath, let alone write to my best friend.

I miss you. Why couldn’t you have pursued a degree in archaeology or geology or dendochronology, something useful instead of dumb computer science? Didn’t I tell you the Silicon Valley start-ups were all run by hipster vampires? Maybe if you’d picked something else you’d be here with me instead of stick-in-the-mud Evelyn. Actually, that’s being harsh on mud. At least it’s viscous. At least it budges.

I know I shouldn’t complain. She’s the one who survived a reality TV experience on some desert island (though she refuses to talk about, and I’m like—why even bother being on a show like that if you don’t harvest the experience for great stories?!). She’s spent more time in the field than me. She has a much harder job. She makes the executive decisions, protects us from natural disasters, keeps us (read: me) from getting chomped by some ferocious feline—which is a very real possibility if the carcass we found is anything to go by. Our first hominin happened to be a dead one, of course. This honestly did scare me, considering what almost happened when I was out there.

But I’m going to dangle you in suspense until I’m all done griping. Clearly all turned out well, since here I am writing to you.

As I was saying. She has every reason to play it safe. Death, disfigurement, and maiming could come from several dozen sources out here. But I swear she’s so cautious it borders on paranoia. I’ve been forbidden from going off on my own except to our latrines. She insists we get back to the shelter before the sun even touches the horizon, and then we spend the hours before going to sleep organizing samples to take to the Mystery Box in the morning. We’ve collected lots of rocks, water samples, and botanical samples—including this amazing orange flower that looks like Canarina eminii—and the bits we collected from the dead hominin. The chirocopter drone recently discovered some forested areas with heat signatures that might also be hominins. And I might’ve discovered a new species of arachnid! He’s cute, the size of my thumbnail with crimped legs and blue stripes. I searched our database and couldn’t find anything like him. Back to the 21st century he goes tomorrow, along with this letter. I hope they let me name him!

There’s just so much more I want to do! How are we ever going to find any Homo erectus camps if we don’t go out there? I’m determined to uncover some proof that the Nutracker man (Paranthropus boisei, as he’s formally known) overlapped with Mr. Upright (i.e. Homo erectus). And if, God forbid, Evelyn says that’s too dangerous, I’d at least like to visit Mount Suswa to set up some insect traps and do a few wildlife surveys. I have a hypothesis that eruptions might have made things evolve more rapidly by isolating groups. You either adapt, or you die out.

Alright, I suppose I’ve stretched your patience long enough. Time for the cat story.

This was a week ago, right before Evelyn instituted the no-travel-alone rule. I’d hiked to a nearby freshwater stream to scope out the wildlife and was sitting in the shade with my sketch pad when a bush rustled nearby. I looked over my shoulder and there, just ten meters away, crouched a saber-tooth cat. At least that’s what I think it was. I thought I saw fangs, but they’re supposed to have disappeared from Africa half-a-million years ago. Anyway, you probably won’t be surprised that I didn’t have the presence of mind to really identify it. But it was huge and had striped brown fur and I’ve never felt so much like prey. My skin went very cold, and my heart jumped into turbo speed as we eyed each other. The lab techs developed this spray for us to wear that’s mostly odorless but is supposed to repulse carnivores, and maybe that’s why it didn’t attack right away. I also had my bear mace and ultra-high-voltage taser with me—I’m eager to be in the field, but I’m not stupid—and I pulled both out and shot a burst of mace at the cat. It wrinkled its nose, flattened its huge ears, growled and backed away.

I got lucky. I don’t want to trust my luck next time. Other good news: it didn’t seem to be hunting in a group. One, I could take. Maybe two. Not more. Clearly, if the poor dead hominin is any example. You can imagine just how horrified I was when we found it, and I saw in graphic detail what could’ve happened to me. But my excitement always overcomes my fear, and much faster than common sense suggests it should.

The moral of the story might be that Evelyn is right and I’m a grumpy badger. I didn’t tell her about the cat because the last thing I need is to give my expedition leader a heart attack. I promise I’ll do a better job listening to her and looking after myself, so you can yell at me for all the close calls when I get back.

Your friend thru time,


Week 2, Day 3

from: Evelyn Willoughby

to: Mission Control

subject: Week 2 Update

Ten days into the expedition we’re acclimating well to the Rift System environment. As suspected, there are adequate sources of freshwater near our camp, so we haven’t been overly reliant on the Dome’s recycling system. Our food supplies are holding strong; we discovered the cache left behind by the earlier Tipler Dome drop on our second day of reconnaissance. We are both in good health after recovering from the initial jump, and both have iron levels that are back to normal. We are both continuing to follow the prescribed regimen of anti-malarial, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial medications.

The only immediate obstacle at this point is complacency. Andrea worries we won’t find anymore hominins before our eight weeks are over and we jump to the next location and time. It’s true that the drones have yet to positively identify any hominin encampments, and our ground-penetrating radar surveys haven’t turned up anything useful, but it’s still early into this first leg of our journey. I wanted to use the X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy machine so we can at least gain an idea of where the hominins might have been recently, but the device broke during our jump back. If the engineers send instructions on how to repair it with the next resupply drop, I’ll try to get it working.

I do wish a larger group could’ve traveled here. I understand the reasons for limiting our team to two, the increasing risk that comes with every additional person. But the obstacles that prove so difficult to such a small crew would easily be overcome by a group of five or six. Field exploration, for example. We’ve been hindered by the need to travel together for safety. It’s a necessary precaution, given what we saw of the hominin remains. But even with robotic assistance—the chirocopter and eBee drones—we can only get so far each day. I hesitate to move our campsite without a clear reason as to the advantages of doing so. The farther we are from the Tipler Dome, or as Andrea affectionately calls it, the “Mystery Box,” the more exposed we make ourselves to predators, and the more our presence might scare off other hominins. How are we to know whether they’ll see us as more successful hunters, as threats to themselves? There are so many things that might go wrong.

You’ll see from the samples that despite some disagreements over how to explore the region, we’ve been highly productive. I remain optimistic about our chances of observing Homo erectus in its native environment, perhaps by encountering a scavenging group. In the coming days, we’ll set the drone to keep an eye out for any grazers taken down by local carnivores. My hope is that in visiting the kill site after the largest feeders have eaten their full, we may observe scavengers in action, including our hominin relatives.

I’ve attached our field log from the week below this note. Please advise if any samples fail to come through.

Field leader Evelyn Willoughby

Field Notes, Week 1: Olduvai Gorge

Week 1, Day 1

from: Andrea Chang

to: Mission Control

subject: Arrival and survival

Greetings from the Pleistocene! We’ve successfully arrived near Olduvai Gorge, exactly 1 million years before present (BP). The crazy thing is, it doesn’t look so much different from when I visited Tanzania for field school. Dusty red valleys and hills. Scrubby brush and stands of trees and mountains on the horizon. Enough old rocks to give the geologists work for weeks—though they’re a million years younger than they were for me yesterday. I thought the air at least would smell different. Cleaner. It’s not like I expected a herd of Pelorovis buffalo to go rumbling by, or that we’d land in the middle of some Homo erectus structures. But I did think something in me would feel unsettled by the jump back. Something in my psyche, that is. My physical body is absolutely feeling it. Maybe I’ve got time lag and my brain won’t judder into synch with the world till tomorrow.

The ride in the Tipler Dome felt pretty much like what it was: forcing a body through many millennia, against its will, and only barely keeping the cells from spinning off into individual identity crises because this is clearly not within the bounds of nature. I think a few of you know how the avian flu feels? Even without firsthand experience of that particular bug, I can say this was worse. My bones still feel like Play-Doh that’s been squished through an extruder to make spaghetti. My skin went hot, then so cold it was like I’d been doused in nitrogen. Meanwhile my stomach slingshotted around the planet in low Earth orbit even though I couldn’t really sense movement, so to speak. The combination of three-day fast and monthlong iron-removal diet seems to have saved us from internal bleeding; neither of us are exhibiting any symptoms. Though at this point I almost wish I’d just died and gotten it over with. I took my iron pill and drank the anti-nausea shake, but that’s about all I can stomach right now.

Evelyn is still walking circles around the campsite trying to get her head screwed back on. I’d join her if I could stand on two feet without falling over. Writing is about as far as I can get.

Since that was the longest jump back in time, I’m hoping it’s the worst of the symptoms. I’ll make note for the next jump forward to record whether the nausea goes away more rapidly, or if it even comes at all.

Unfortunately at this point there’s no way of knowing if we landed on the best day or week or year or century to make our observations. No sign of life yet except the trees and a few flying bugs. I’ll set traps tomorrow and try to locate the closest watering hole. There should be a perennial freshwater lake within of a few kilometers of here. Till then, it’s songs around the campfire and rehydrated rice and beans. Just as soon as the both of us relocate our stomachs.

Until next time,


Week 1, Day 5

from: Evelyn Willoughby

to: Pia Schuster

subject: Our first week

My love,

The sky weighs heavily on us this evening. Darkness has never felt so dangerous. I’m reminded of our dear Rilke, of course. “The first word that you ever spoke was: light. Thus time began. For long you said no more. Man was your second, and a frightening word, (the sound of it still shrouds us in its night).”

Man may be why we’ve come here, but he’s also the only creature keeping me awake with nerves. Herbivores could stomp through our campsite, hunters like the giant short-faced hyena may sniff their way to us in search of a midnight meal, venomous serpents and poisonous arachnids could creep into our enclosure—yet none of those frighten me as much as our first encounter with the Upright Man.

This morning, only our fifth day since arriving, we came across the chewed carcass of some hominin approximately 4 kilometers from our campsite. Its skull was covered in puncture wounds, its ribs torn open and organs devoured. Flies had obscured its features, but they scattered as soon as we approached. In the poor creature’s hand was a teardrop-shaped tool—a handaxe—and I found traces of fiber around its neck. Could it be decorative? A necklace? Or simply the wind having blown some debris onto it after death? Its remains were too torn apart for positive identification. I suspect it’s a Homo erectus, but its teeth are on the large side and its body on the small side, leading Andrea to suggest it might be Paranthropus boisei. A body is so much different than bones. The muscle, the skin, the hair—this was a real being. Not just an ancient skeleton.

We took a blood sample and will return to the remains for further study once it’s a less popular source of food. Several small hyenas were circling the area as we made our observations.  

The dead hominin isn’t particularly surprising: a clear example of predation by a large cat, with subsequent scavenging by other carnivores. No, what frightened me more than I expected was the leopard lying just beyond the hominin, stab wounds in its sides. Andrea believes it may have been a young adolescent hunting with its mother, as leopards usually hunt individually. The animal hasn’t been butchered in any way, though perhaps it will be. Something with tools killed that cat. Something that might’ve been fighting alongside the other hominin. Something that survived and escaped. If they can kill fanged, clawed wild animals, certainly they’d have no trouble killing us.

I’m trying to avoid apocalyptic thoughts and focus on more immediate challenges, such as reigning in Andrea’s impetuous impulses. Just yesterday she ventured to a nearby lake on her own. Without awaiting the results of the aerial survey from our chirocopter, disguised overnight in a cloud of bats. We planned on using the drone’s data to look for heat signatures around the area.

When Andrea returned, she reported that she’d found a small lake. Her cheeks were flushed. Excitement, and likely dehydration. The temperature hovers around 30 degrees C, and she’d forgotten to bring a water filter along with her Camelback pouch. When I expressed my concern at her departure and the need to coordinate our schedules, she merely pointed out that her radio had remained attached to her hip the entire time. “And you can always find me with that transponder thingy,” she added, referring to the bio-tracks they installed in our wrists.

We analyzed the chirocopter data together. There wasn’t much to see at that point. The drone picked up heat signatures for small mammals and what we guessed to be a pride of lions. But nothing at all humanoid. Even today, after we found the carcass, the drone hasn’t identified anything else in a 20km radius that might be a hominin. Perhaps the group to which our dead specimen belonged was traveling quickly through the area.

Even after our discovery today, Andrea still argues she should be allowed to undertake individual outings. She says we’ll cover more ground that way. I managed to argue her down. You know how dangerous excitement can be when out in the field. I remember that yellow-bellied sea snake bite, and everything else that went wrong on that damned survival reality TV show.

Part of my discomfort in ordering her around is that she already thinks me matronly. We both know I don’t have a single maternal bone in my body, but 41 may appear dowdy to a 30-year-old. For now, she sleeps, and seems unconcerned by the enormity of our undertaking.

Home for the moment is a spacious tent erected in the shelter of a shallow rocky depression. One couldn’t call it a cave; there isn’t a full roof above us. But its three walls do lessen the feeling of exposure. The grayish green fabric doesn’t entirely blend with the red rock of the gorge, but nearby trees provide some cover. The Tipler Dome remains in its landing spot, its chameleon skin working almost perfectly to help it blend into the landscape. The engineers and physicists agreed on little, but one of the things they did both conclude was that it should be nearly indestructible.

It’s nearing midnight, if wristwatches can still be trusted after a jump backward in time. I long to sleep, but in this wilderness before our species evolved, I find myself lonelier than I have ever been. To think that you won’t even be born for another one million years is more than my mind can fathom. Instead I’ll look at the moon. Even if the light from the stars has changed between us, the moon is our constant anchor. Watching it, I’m with you.

Gute nacht, mein schatz,


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