Digging a Hole

John was told by his parents, from the beginning, that he could become whatever he wanted to become. He could do whatever he made up his mind to do. As a young man, he took this seriously.

At Trinity Prep, he thought that he might like to become a professional athlete. He made the varsity teams in soccer, baseball, and basketball, but soon understood that he wasn’t good enough at any of them to play at the college level. On the other hand, his grades were excellent and he took an interest in math, science, and foreign languages.

At Harvard, John thought at first that he might like to become an astronomer. His interest waned when he learned that astronomy involved a great deal of numerical analysis and night work and, for him at least, wasn’t as romantic as it had seemed at first. In the end, he majored in English Lit.

When he graduated, he had his choice of entry-level positions at all sorts of companies. His parents were extravagantly wealthy and well-connected. Because he hadn’t yet made a commitment to any particular field of endeavor, he chose to skip the offered jobs and instead arranged to spend a year of his life seeing the world.

He was in Australia when he was notified that his mother and father had been killed in an automobile accident. His parents had sent him off to school at the age of six. They had never been close to him, or him to them. He was sorry that he had lost them, but no more than sorry.

He returned home, where his financial advisers assured him that he would be earning more every year, in interest and investments, than he was likely to spend. With the legal work complete and the estate in order, he returned to his tour.

He felt the weight of his fortune as he traveled. He saw in the world so many places where he could apply his wealth for good. When he returned to the U.S., he set up a foundation in his parents’ name and endowed it with more than half his capital.

The foundation funded all sorts of projects around the world, addressing issues of hunger, health, the environment, regional tensions, and pure science. John participated in the grants process, but found himself wanting something more as a focus in his life. He wanted to accomplish more than distributing money to the world.

Restless on a spring day, he found himself interviewing a young woman who had submitted a small proposal for the support of an initial round of trial excavations at an archeological site in central Africa.

“You’re looking for hominids?” he asked the young woman, Gili, studying her executive summary and area maps.

“The site’s potential is amazing,” she said. “Off the charts. But hard to reach.”

She pointed to an area northwest of the border between the Central African Republic and Congo.

“Rolling savanna. Nothing in any direction but a few native villages. One of the poorest areas in the world. With the tsetse fly, also one of the most dangerous. Of course, we’ll be taking precautions.”

“What’s so special about this site?”

“Over the past several million years, a large lake grew and shrank there,” she said, drawing an outline on one of the maps with her finger. “Periodic eruptions lay down layers of tuff over the sediments on the shores. In addition, alluvial fans off the flanks of the volcanoes covered the area. We have an organized record of animal and vegetable fossils just waiting for excavation. These strata cover the period of time from the earliest known hominids to today.”

“How do you know what’s beneath the surface?” John said. “How did you find this area in the first place?”

“I’ve been working with two South African paleogeologists who spotted the site while out doing mineral surveys. Pure chance. There is some Pleistocene faulting in the site area. The men found two hundred and fifty feet of strata exposed in a cliff. The edges of the fossil beds are magnificent. We’ve identified a sequence of terrigenous clays, sands, silts, and limestones – a Pliocene layer of wetland. We’ve got datable rocks. We can map the rest of the shoreline using cores and trenches and build a model of the area as it changed over three million years.”

“Why my foundation?” John said. “I’d expect the principal institutions in archeology would be falling all over themselves to fund this.”

Gili colored.

“They would,” she said, “and they and their preferred scientists would take control of the enterprise in a heartbeat. I’m in the position of a Donald Johnson at the moment, before he found Lucy. I don’t care about the fame, but a major find at a site like this would set me up for a lifetime of study in my field. I want to make a start out there before any of the big boys come in.”

John sat back.

“Do you know the Mirny diamond mine?” he said.

Gili shook her head.

“It’s in Siberia. It’s a giant hole in the ground. Three-quarters of a mile across. A third of a mile deep. I remember standing and looking down into it. I asked my guides if any fossils had been taken out of it. They couldn’t tell me. I remember thinking at the time that I’d like to dig a hole like that, not to find diamonds but to find everything from the past that it contained.”

Gili laughed.

“We won’t be digging anything quite that big,” she said. “We’re more likely to be crouched down uncovering a bone here and there from the surrounding breccia, using a dental pick and an airscribe.”

“I’ll OK the grant,” John said, “providing that I get to come along with it.”

“You can visit any time.”

“I don’t want to visit. I want to work. Consider me an intern, starting at the bottom. Will that be a problem?”

“If you’re truly at the bottom, no,” Gili said. “But if, because of your money…”

“We’ll write an agreement into the grant,” John said. “The entire amount goes into an escrow account, from which you’ll withdraw what you need, when you need it. If at any time I become a problem onsite, you’ll have the power to send me home. If you think you can handle it, I’d also like to increase the amount of the grant. We might not dig a Mirny hole, but I want you to do as much as you can without breaking the project.”

He wanted badly to invite her to dinner when they were finished, but knew that she’d feel she had to say yes, which might spoil the present feelings of good will and the evening. He went home and made dinner for himself alone. He didn’t see Gili again until they were both in camp on the savanna in Africa.

When he arrived, John joined workers from the villages who had little or no experience at a dig. A mixture of tribes were represented: Bagunda, Akasele, Dakpwa, Aouaka, and others. Sango was the language of the camp. John began picking it up immediately.

He worked and learned along with the rest, using a shovel and jackhammer and wheelbarrow, removing the modern strata, making the site ready for sieves and fossil discovery. He remained completely apart from Gili and her staff. He had had an airstrip built for them in advance, and invited them to use it as necessary, along with the two cargo planes that he stationed there.

With the task of clearing the top layers away, down to the first horizon of interest, work began on the actual excavation and evaluation of the most recent of two and a half million years of depositional history.

At night, John studied textbooks and journal articles on paleontology, the Permian era, excavation techniques, and related topics. He listened in on the staff conversations in camp, which often lasted past midnight. Gili made occasional requests for special funding, for resources to expedite their work. John never refused her.

As word of the dig spread throughout the academic community worldwide, the site began to receive visitors. John made a third, smaller plane available, for traffic in and out of Bangui, Mbandaka, and Goma.

One day, he noticed that there were fewer workers in the grid than usual. By this time, he was speaking Sango well. It was a creole language, not so hard to pick up. John asked his coworkers why so many of the workers were missing that day.

“Fever in the villages,” he was told.

“Do you have doctors?”

“No doctors.”

That night on the camp satellite phone, he arranged for doctors to be flown in and for clinics to be built in the region, sufficiently endowed to ensure their future survival.

As he learned the art of excavation, he began to spend more time with Gili and her staff during the day, as a student and eventually as a friend. His support of their work never wavered. The project was bounded by the seasons and whenever he could help speed things up by granting extra funds, he did so. The camp kept its collective eye on the calendar.

The ground began yielding signs of large mammal butchery, the manufacture of stone artifacts, and other archaeological debris. The camp was electrified when the first bones of genus Homo were found.

John was as content as he had ever been. He did not want the dig to end, but it finally became impossible to ignore the approach of the rainy season. Clouds built in the afternoon sky, at first on the far horizon and then, daily, closer to camp. The cloud formations were immense, literally mountains in the sky, fifty shades of white and gray, impossibly complicated. As they came closer, John could see lightening glowing within them. Sudden bolts reached to the earth. Wind sheared the floor of the clouds flat. A gray light like dusk shadowed the land beneath them, as curtains of rain hung down.

Soon, Gili and her staff struck camp, sent the workers back to their villages, and left the site and Africa.

Two seasons later, and two million years deeper in the dig, John heard a cry of delight that, he knew, signaled a significant find. He stood up with the workers around him. They crossed the grid strings and gathered around a kneeling man. John could just make out, exposed in the matrix that held it, the curve of a skull. It was the find that would write him and Gili and the man who found the bone into the history books, and define for the three of them the course they would follow for the rest of their lives.