An Introduction from Evelyn Willoughby, Origins Mission Field Leader

Hello to all of our readers. I’m very happy to be writing you in the last weeks before we set off on our adventure into the past. My name is Evelyn Willoughby and I’ll be the field leader on the Origins Mission.

Since Andrea has already given you the broad overview of our mission, I’ll try to explain a bit more about our research questions and my field methods. Of course, this trip is like nothing I’ve done before, so we’ll inevitably run into unique challenges, but I believe my experience and background in outdoor survival will get us through whatever obstacles arise.

First, some research questions. The Olduvai Gorge of one million years ago is only our first stop of the journey, but it’s a hugely important location in the story of human history. Some of our oldest ancestors have been discovered there, as well as thousands of stone tools. For the time period we’ll be visiting, I’m hoping to learn more about Homo erectus, named for its upright stature. This species shared many similarities with us and lived for around 1.5 million years. That’s five times longer than our species has so far managed to survive. While Homo erectus wasn’t our direct ancestor—they’re more like cousins by marriage—they can tell us a lot about successful adaptation to changing environments. I would like to learn as much as possible about their behavior: if they hunted or scavenged for meant; what other foods they ate; how they divided tasks; the interactions between males and females and their child-rearing strategies; methods of communication; and if they had any material culture beyond stone tools. I know I won’t be able to answer all my questions, but simply seeing the species in person will offer much more information than the scanty fossil record.

But it would be foolish to assume the best about Homo erectus and not to take precautions against attacks. This is where my leadership comes into play. Andrea and I will be thrust into an unfamiliar setting, and so will have to closely monitor any Homo erectus groups that approach our encampment. We’ll avoid making contact with them until I feel we can do so without incurring undue risks. How are we to know whether Homo erectus was antagonistic to other hominin species, or even to members of its own species from outside groups? Our research—and the investment of the Megatherium Society—does no good if we don’t survive to share it.

I’ll end on a lighter note, as our media coordinator has suggested, by sharing some details on my own background. Although I was born in the United States, my family moved to Nigeria before I turned four. Over the next ten years we traveled across Africa, never staying anywhere for long. My parents were missionaries and went wherever they felt they were needed, as long as it was safe. We avoided South Africa, as apartheid hadn’t yet ended and my father is black while my mother is white. I loved traveling the continent and was fascinated by science and history from a young age. These dual interests ultimately led to my research on human origins at the Max Planck University. While completing my doctoral dissertation there, I met the woman who later became my wife. She, more than anyone else, was most thrilled for me to take this opportunity with the Origins Mission.

I hope you’ll follow us as we continue our exploration. Perhaps you may discover your own passion for science and history, just as I did.

An Introduction from Andrea Chang, Origins Mission Achroniologist

Hello world!

I’m so excited to be writing to you for the first time ever as one of two achroniologists chosen for the Origins Mission! Starting soon, you’ll be hearing from me on a regular basis if you subscribe to our field notes. If you’re more the casual drop-in type, you can also learn about what we’re up to right here on this blog. 

For those of you who haven’t kept up with current events, a brief rundown: the mission is a research expedition sponsored by the Megatherium Society that will be sending me and one other scientist  back in time to study human evolution and adaptability to climate change. So it's mainly a research gathering trip, but we hope that some of what we learn might have practical applications. One example: by studying how our species survived when no other hominins did, we might learn something about adaptability and evolution that will help us with the climate crisis we’re facing.

We’ll be gone for 16 months, hopscotching through space-time (as you do), visiting periods and locations that have been identified as important based on the fossil record. They put a list of all the destinations we’ll be visiting on the website, so you can check it out here. I’ll return to our time exactly 16 months after I leave for reasons to do with how time travel affects our health.

I won’t have Internet, but the dome has a one-way transporter that will allow us to send back weekly samples and letters. And of course there’s a fail safe “return to present” button. It’ll get us out ASAP in the event of emergency. Like a temporal ejector seat!

This is the first time a human subject is traveling so far back in a Tipler Dome, but they’ve done a dozen trials with animal subjects and all of them came back in one piece (the blog actually had a story about those intrepid animal subjects, I highly recommend checking that out if you’re a mouse or monkey lover). 

While in the past, we're trying to answer some of the biggest questions in human history, and investigating our hominin family tree. You might know some of the more recognizable names, like the Neanderthals, but we'll also be checking out Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and the Denisovans—all species that once existed and left traces all over the world, but all died out. We want to know what happened to them, and how Homo sapiens managed to make it to our time. Mere luck? Or did something set us apart? 

I hope you're ready for an adventure! I know I am!

The Tale of the Time-Traveling Cephalopod

As you may know, it took nearly ten years of trial and error to complete the Tipler Dome, and a lot of ingenuity on the part of our engineers and physicists. More than 100 people were involved in the effort. Even after the machine was finished and could successfully make trips back in time then return to the present (it can’t jump ahead of the present—at least not yet), there was still more testing to do. We needed to know it would be safe to send people back in it!

The very first time traveler was Q1-2, a white mouse bred in our labs and nicknamed Budge. Staying behind with us was Budge’s twin sister, Q1-3, or Munch. Sending Budge one million years back in time while Munch remained in the present allowed the scientists to compare the physiology of the two mice post-travel. When Budge returned intact from her weeklong stay in the distant past, our scientists were very excited to see that the only change was a loss of appetite.

Next, we sent back a cohort of mice—six in all—to live for three months on an island off the coast of Antarctica. That location was chosen so the dome wouldn’t be disturbed by any other fauna (and our mice were kept warm through a solar-powered heater). Once again, all six animals survived with few detrimental side effects. 

To test different physiologies, the next passenger to ride in the Tipler Dome was Octopus vulgaris, a common octopus named Salvador Dalí. Of all the animal travelers that visited the past, Salvador was the only one who came close to escaping. After turning dark brown in response to the jump back, Salvador gradually went back to his normal orangey-red color and began exploring the dome. The room was set up to allow him to leave his aquarium and explore, and this intrepid little cephalopod made it all the way to the door and attempted to unhinge the latch. Luckily our scientists designed it so that the machine could only be opened from the outside, so Salvador didn’t escape into the past!

Our most formidable challenge came when we began sending back trained capuchins. These fuzzy monkeys were trained to complete cognitive tests upon their arrival in the past, and were then rewarded with grapes. If they suffered any distress, they could press a button that would register in our lab in the present, and we would bring them back. The first capuchin subject, Lucky, pushed the button almost immediately. The scientists discovered he was suffering from internal bleeding, and were able to save his life with their quick response. But what had caused the bleeding? It took weeks of tests to understand the problem. The Tipler Dome had caused acute hemochromatosis—the capuchin had too much iron in his body. Something about time travel caused blood to pool in his abdominal cavity.

To solve the problem, the researchers next sent back a capuchin who had been placed on a reduced-iron diet for two months. This time our subject, Napoleon, didn’t press the distress signal until he’d been in the past for a week. Once again, he was suffering from internal bleeding. It wasn’t until the scientists decided to place a capuchin on a severely iron-reduced diet that the subject made it without any ill effects. Opal survived the journey, ate her iron supplements for the first week of her time in the past, and came back after two months with no health issues. (We’ll be writing about the time-travel diet our achroniologists followed in the next couple weeks. Check back here to read about it!)

The last animal partner to go back in time was Henrietta, a bonobo. She followed the same iron-reduction regimen as Opal and safely arrived at her destination, one million years in the past. Unlike the others, Henrietta hopscotched to different time periods and places to test how that would affect our human travelers. She completed all the cognitive assessments at every stop and arrived back home after six months of traveling. The only complaint she signed to her handler when she returned: “Not enough kiwis to eat.”

Q&A with the Achroniologists

Andrea Chang

Research Specialty: Primatology and geobiology. I’ve done field work in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, southern China, Madagascar, and Ecuador.

Favorite Primate: The silvery gibbon. The females sing to mark their territory!

Favorite Hominin: Homo floresiensis. Who doesn’t love the Hobbits? But maybe I’ll change my mind once we start meeting more of them.

Favorite Food: Sayur asem, an Indonesian soup made with tamarind.

Favorite Place to Visit: Vancouver, which is my home but not where I live most of the time. I always miss it when I’m away.

Hobbies: I’m kind of a workaholic, so most of my hobbies are tangentially related to work. I’ve been an archer since Girl Scout camp, I love mountain climbing and skiing, and I try to go on at least one camping trip each year that isn’t related to my research. I also keep a sketchbook, but I’m not exactly what you’d call a good artist.  

Favorite Author/Book: Agatha Christie

One Surprising Fact: I’m ambidextrous, but only write in cursive with my left hand and print with my right.

What You’ll Miss Most: My weekly horoscope subscription! J/k (though I will miss that). My family, my friends, and my dog, Cricket. Also blueberry pancakes with maple cream.

Evelyn Willoughby

Research Specialty: Anthropology and genomics. My field work has taken me all over Africa, as well as the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. 

Favorite Primate: Not my area of expertise, but I'm partial to lemurs. 

Favorite Hominin: I don't know that I could pick any single species as a favorite, but the one I'm most intrigued by is Homo erectus, since they spread so far across the world. 

Favorite Food: The döner kebap sandwich, the best street food in Germany. 

Favorite Place to Visit: Costa Rica. It's where my wife and I went on our honeymoon. Beautiful scenery, friendly people, wonderful memories. 

Hobbies: Most of my hobbies have fallen by the wayside while training for the mission. But I formerly spent free evenings in the winter crocheting, and summers at a pottery studio or cycling. Everything else is less hobby, more career-related skill, like stone-knapping and atlatl throwing.

Favorite Author/Book: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire

One Surprising Fact: I competed in poetry slams until heading to university. 

What You'll Miss Most: My wife, Pia. Though I'm sure the lack of indoor plumbing will also grow wearying after several months of digging latrines.