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.