Belief fortified the collective memory. Energy from the spreading tectonic plates enhanced its influence. It would take a generation or more of its hosts’ time but a brief moment in the memory’s reference. Minds converging on the rift foci would raise the collective to the next level of existence.
Dar es Salaam. June, 2029
Pierre sat in the leather guest chair. He was uneasy. After months in Grenoble, his return to his precious digs were delayed by this meeting with Minister Nterre and Commissioner Krug. When met by Nterre’s aides at the Dar airport, he’d prepared to meet the Minister one on one.
Pierre pointed at the local newspaper headline and addressed Krug. “Shouldn’t you be in the field, investigating the latest batch of missing tourists?”
“I asked him to be present. I rely on the Commissioner’s expertise.” Nterre sat behind an enormous desk, its top inlaid by grey leather. Rhino or elephant? Pierre wondered.
Krug ignored the newspaper and tapped his copy of Pierre’s article. “This claims no doubt about your identification of those skeletal remains, Professor. But you’re fuzzy on the timeline. How can you be certain of one and not the other?”
Pierre forced himself to address Krug but kept eye contact with Nterre. “Authorities world-wide agree with me. They’ve had months to study my evidence.”
The Minister lifted his shoulders. “We shall discuss your unauthorized communications in a minute. First, summarize this for me. The highlights.”
Krug hadn’t distilled it? Or was this a test? Pierre’s conviction or Krug’s understanding?
Pierre pointed to the article’s opening picture. “This assemblage is upper paleolithic in age. The few tools found with the bones are concurrent with those found in Europe dating from 40,000 years ago onward. Stratigraphically, the skeletal remains are encased within unconsolidated sediments, indicating recent burial, much less than 40,000.”
Nterre’s expression did not change. He needed to be lead, Pierre realized.
“The age of the skeletal fragments isn’t consistent with those of the tools nor the burial timing. That is why this is a find of major importance.”
“The bones are not the usual gorge remains?” asked Nterre.
Pierre wondered if he’d read the paper at all.
“They are not Homo Hablis, Minister,” said Krug. He looked at Pierre. “Continue, Professor, I won’t spoil your surprise.”
“My site’s remains are removed a million or more years from most east African discoveries,” said Pierre. He stood to emphasize his point. “The skeletons are Neanderthal.” He stopped, awaiting reaction to his amazing find.
Krug smirked at some private amusement. Nterre looked uncertain.
Pierre rested his fists on the desk. “This could explain Neanderthal’s disappearance from Europe during the last ice age. This discovery post-dates the last known appearance of the species. And, if my figures are correct, the assemblage is so massive you could fit all previously known Neanderthal remains into a small corner of it.”
Krug sniffed. “Mostly small sample size evidence and hypothesis. You haven’t excavated more than a few square meters and already you propose a large city under the lake bed. Those remains could be secondary, washed down from some other, older site a hundred or a thousand years ago. The Minister is an educated man, Professor, and familiar with conventional archeology. Neither he nor I will be convinced by such weak evidence.” Krug had attempted to trap Pierre, letting him state his radical case, then toppling it.
Pierre resisted the urge to challenge Krug’s expertise. He knew this wasn’t the time, not in front of Nterre. Instead, Pierre produced a key report which they hadn’t seen. “A few samples from the dig accompanied me to Grenoble,” he held up a hand to belay Krug’s protest, “under my permit’s conditions, to be radiocarbon dated. I’m sure your scientific backgrounds will allow you to understand and accept the accuracy of this method and the age I propose.” He dropped the addendum on the Minister’s desk.
Neither government man spoke. Nor did either pick up the new information.
Are they complete idiots? “I propose an age between fourteen and sixteen thousand years ago. A more exact number will be provided in the future with more samples but it won’t change the revolutionary implications. This dating places their extinction at least twenty-thousand years later than believed.”
Nterre looked at the new data briefly, inserted it into Pierre’s magazine and closed it. “You provide some rather wild estimates of numbers and age, Professor.”
“Professor Archambault’s imagination seems to have blossomed in many directions preparing his paper.” Krug strolled to the window, speaking with his back to Pierre. “Some scholars believe the only way to gain notoriety is to make outrageous claims. They garner brief attention, then fade in the light of more robust explanations.”
“My estimate are based on sound statistical and scientific principles,” said Pierre.
“We’d prefer principles of common sense,” said Krug. “If this number of extinct Neanderthals existed and lived a mere fourteen thousand years ago, there should be evidence spread throughout Africa of their habitation. Where is it?”
“I don’t claim they lived there,” said Pierre. “I say they died there. Remove the tourist caravans at Olduvai today and fifty years from now there will be little evidence of occupation. Unless,” he paused to accentuate his point, “they all die there. And are preserved.”
“You appear to argue against yourself,” said Krug.
Nterre slapped his desk. “Enough debate. You raise many questions, Professor, and provide me with few reasonable answers. You released data contractually belonging to my government.”
“I admit I circumvented protocol but I did it to solicit the very answers you and I seek. The danger is the proximity of so many non-professionals to this site who have destroyed evidence. Have you seen them? Or pictures?” Pierre dropped three of Sharon’s old photos on the desk.
Nterre glanced without comment. Pierre fingered one. “See here. They cover the far rim of the valley. I don’t have the manpower to withstand their interference. Who knows how many valuable artifacts their presence has already destroyed during my absence.”
Nterre leaned back in his chair. “I will give this matter my attention.”
“What about the security of my digs?”
“You may return to your camp and take what action you must. However, you will conduct no work.”
“Your permit remains suspended while I consider your request,” said Nterre.
Krug appeared satisfied. What hand does he hold in this? Pierre recognized greed in the German’s eyes, a chance to bring his countrymen in on the discovery?
“I have spoken to many of the tourists, they have no interest in disrupting your work, Professor. A military force as you suggest could wreak more damage themselves than from a few visitors.”
“A force under my direction would not disrupt our activity,” Pierre countered.
The Minister placed both palms on his desk. “Your status does not allow you nor any other foreign national to command Tanzanian troops. If I send any soldiers to your camp, they will be under my orders. It may be their job to investigate these visitor disappearances although I suspect the heat forced them to leave in a hurry, forgetting to notify proper authorities.” He gave Krug a look the Commissioner tried hard to ignore.
“Time is our enemy, Minister,” said Pierre.
“You will return to you camp and await my decision.”
Pierre wanted the last threat. “There is international interest in how your government exploits the archeological legacy within its borders. My motives are not personal, we all stand to benefit from or irrevocably lose this legacy based on your decisions.”
“Do not preach obligation to me,” said Nterre. “I will notify you of my decision when I am ready.”
Pierre noticed a slight upturning of Krug’s lip. Pierre feared he’d conducted himself exactly as Krug expected. Could he salvage anything now? Next time he would be better prepared, leave his emotions outside the door. “I will await your judgment. Good day.”
Outside, he expelled a large breath. The Minister will do what Krug advises. But I forced him to do something.
Pierre calmed. He’d radio Sharon to help as much as she could under her permit. He had to bend more rules and risk more sanctions. In the name of science.
Pierre’s rush to reach the camp was frustrated by lines of tourist vehicles jamming the road. The deteriorating highways were no match for the added erosion and Pierre drove cross-country when he could.
There were fewer natives than last year and certainly less than his first dig a decade ago. Moving to the cities while their place in the landscape was taken by newcomers in their massive homes-on-wheels. Dar es Salaam reached its density limit long past as the shanty districts on the outskirts continued to grow.
At last, Pierre idled into camp weary but happy to be back. Sharon waited for him. She held up a yellow sheet of paper. Pierre shut off the jeep and climbed out. “Good to see you, Sharon.”
“You too, Pierre.” She waved the paper. “Can you believe this was delivered by helicopter? Those fools piss money away on the dumbest things.”
“Great power show, someone must fear us.” Pierre read the paper message aloud. Good news or bad, he tired of being alone with his thoughts. Professor Archambault, Nominal head of France-U.S.A. Camp Fourteen. Thank you for your personal appearance with Minister Nterre. What crap, like I had a choice? No guards will be provided at this time due to border difficulties with large number of refugees trying to enter Tanzania. Minister Nterre sympathizes with the problems the visitors pose to our work but he insists you create your own solution. I support the Minister’s excellent suggestion that you and Miss Hood hire the tourists as diggers. Your permit’s suspension is lifted for the time-being. I anticipate viewing your initiatives on my next visit. Sincerely, Commissioner General Boris Krug.
Pierre noticed camp’s quiet then looked at the paper again. “They have lost all touch with reality. Where is everyone? Gerard left Grenoble a week before me.”
Sharon shook her head. “The two diggers left are out at one of my sites. I take most of my readings alone, though there are sufficient tourists nearby that I feel safe.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Gerard spent one night in camp and left in the morning. He hasn’t been back. I radioed Moshi Police who said they’d send someone but no one came. I fear he’s dead. I’m sorry, Pierre.”
“God. How will I tell his family?” Pierre studied Krug’s not. “Not to change the subject on purpose, but there’s one piece of good news in here.”
“My permit’s reinstated. Maybe we can hire a tourist or two. Company for you and guards for my digs. What do you think?”
“I think you need to compose a letter to Gerard’s parents.”
“I mean about hiring the tourists. They might work for free since they’re here anyway.”
“Let’s go into your tent and work on that letter,” said Sharon. “I don’t want to talk about the tourists right now.”
Inside his tent, Pierre cleared dust from his chest and sat on it, letting Sharon use the lone folding chair. He pulled out a clipboard and began to write. “Are you staying on for the whole season?”
She moved the chair to look at his note. “I haven’t decided. There’s lots of work I can do here or in Kansas. It would be better if I was there to ensure credit but the seismic activity is increasing. I’d regret missing a large event. What about you? Is this your last go?”
Pierre thought of the snow-covered slopes and the serenity of cool days and nights. “I miss home but I won’t miss out on important discoveries here. I can enjoy the alpine climate when I’m old. Besides, I don’t trust Krug. He’s hungry for this site now that he begins to understand its uniqueness.”
Sharon found two bottles of beer. “What do you think about the Neanderthals? Your article was short on opinion. Like why they would choose here?”
“Months away have convinced me of the what; yes, they were here. It’s the why I need to solve.” He passed his drafted note. “I’ll not send it until we’re more certain Gerard is gone.”
Sharon sipped. “It’s good, Pierre. You’ve a talent for the written word.” She took another sip and made a face. “Beer isn’t the same when it’s warm, what’s the bloody point, right? Tell me your arguments, maybe I can see the strengths and weaknesses.”
“First, the randomness of skeletal distribution puzzles me.”
“It’s a massive fluvial deposit,” said Sharon. “The torrent depositing the silt could have carried the bones from an older site.”
“No, the individuals are intact and the dating is conclusive. They died in-situ and were buried quickly.”
“A mass grave?”
“No ritual internment, no artifacts.”
“Plague?” Sharon raised an eyebrow.
“Or epidemic, assuming the bodies were placed with purpose but there’s no common group, it’s a cross-section of age and gender. Maybe they got caught in your flood.”
“Disease can be unselective,” she suggested.
“I don’t have the facilities here to diagnose a fifteen-thousand-year-old disease. Krug and Nterre aren’t allowing me to ship enough samples to a facility where I could.” He tipped his bottle to his lips and sucked it dry. “I want to visit the site. A fresh look will help put my thoughts in order.”
“Okay.” Sharon upended her beer but choked. “Five years of hard training on cold ones is hard to overcome. Save this for the English.” She placed the half-empty bottle on his desk. “Let’s go.”
Sharon drove, eyes on the new trail. “Do you think the Neanderthals were escaping from the ice?”
Pierre shook his head. “Their migration never extended this far south.” He held on to his seat as Sharon swerved to avoid a thick, black termite swarm.
“Agreed. But who knows after the ice? Maybe they followed new prey.”
“Or they were pushed by our ancestors.”
“Lots of possibilities, no perfect explanation.” She slowed to drive around a jeep-swallowing pothole.
“Disease, mass migration, sudden death? They were sophisticated hunters and tool-makers, how could they end up here?”
“Visiting?” Sharon chuckled. She braked to a halt.
Pierre grabbed camera and notebook. “The camp’s growing.” He pointed to the horizon where months ago nothing had stood. Now caravans and awnings dotted the ridge. “You can smell them.” They walked toward his dig site. “They’re like the termites we drove through.”
“They only have purpose as a group. I’ll wager the bunch of those caravans showed up together. It was no single family’s idea.”
Sharon stopped. “You dislike the crowd so close, don’t you?”
“I want to get a picture.” He aimed the camera and took a panorama shot. “Isolation from masses of people definitely influenced my career choice. You’re from Kansas, you must have a liking for the uncrowded spaces.”
Sharon strode toward the dig. “I never thought they’d catch up to me here, that’s certain. I mean, you haven’t seen the American Prairies but they’re not this forlorn.”
His rope barrier lay on the ground, held in place by stakes. The earth he’d used to fill in the pit remained. The rising wind sent a chill through Pierre despite the heat. He heard buzzing but saw no insects. He stared at the visitor camp. “The answer is there, isn’t it?” he said. The buzzing roared inside his head.
Sharon didn’t turn her head. “Yes, I fear it is.”
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