By expedition standards, the Quonset was relatively snug,
albeit stiflingly hot. The wind from the steppes howled outside as it had for
three days, confining the archaeological team to their huts. It was late May, a
time of year when temperatures were soaring and dust storms frequent as the
winds picked up dirt and sand from the desert.
Still, only stray bits of grit blew in on those occasions
when Claire had ventured out to the mess during the storm. The hot air in
Claire’s hut was dry enough to mummify the plum Claire had left sitting in a
bowl. She had pretty much stripped down as she sat at her plywood desk. She
thought back on the whirlwind of events that in a few short weeks had brought
her from a wellestablished life doing research in Florida to the searing heat
of the Kazakh Steppes. It had all begun with a site visit from her funders, a
visit that had gone well—too well, as it turned out.
She thought back to the day.
One of the sweetest moments was the shower demonstration.
Claire smiled as she thought of baby Teddy.
“No, no, sweetie, you’re doing it all wrong.” Claire had
walked over and pushed the lever. “See,”
she said, looking into the soft brown eyes of the toddler, “you push the lever
and the water comes out.” Claire had extended her arm to push a long handle so
that she didn’t get doused by the shower. The baby cocked his head and looked
at Claire expectantly but didn’t reach for the lever.
Claire sighed and turned behind her. “Come here, Mona. Why
don’t you try.”
At the mention of her name, Mona, who had been standing
placidly by, perked up and began lumbering forward.
Claire turned back to the baby. “OK, Teddy, Mommy’s going to
show you how.” Then she nimbly and quickly stepped back to make way for the
massive elephant. Mona walked under the
twelve-foot-high shower-head in the enclosure and pushed the lever with her
trunk. She gave a soft rumble of pleasure as the cool water offered relief from
the hot Floridian sun. Then she stepped back and, with her trunk, gently nudged
baby Teddy forward.
Teddy looked at Mona, glanced over at Claire, and then at
the lever. Mona emitted another soft sound and put her trunk on the lever.
Teddy tentatively extended his trunk and put it on the lever, too. Then Mona
pushed the lever and water gushed down on the five-hundred-pound baby. Teddy
jumped and gave an alarm call.
Claire laughed. She turned to two men and a woman standing
behind protective mesh and said, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I’d guess
Mona was laughing, too.” That produced chuckles in the group, who were
sweltering in business attire and mopping their brows with handkerchiefs.
Claire took pity. “OK, let’s get out of the sun, and we can
talk about the real work going on here.”
Later, as she waved goodbye, Claire had skeptically replayed
the site visit. Not knowing what it was really about, she’d thought it had gone
well. On surprisingly short notice, the Delamain Foundation, which funded her
work, had sent a group of two trustees and the executive director to visit.
Claire knew where her bread was buttered, and she’d made sure to mix the hard
science—experiments to determine what information elephants conveyed through
ultrasonic communication, and how they perceived it—with the fun stuff.
They’d loved the fun stuff.
Apart from the shower demonstration, Claire had set up a
pitching contest between one of the elephants, Flo, and one of the volunteers
at the park who had previously played baseball in high school. Delamain was
headquartered in Chicago, and so Claire had put a Chicago Cubs blanket on Flo’s
back. The first two times she tried to put the blanket on, Flo shook it off.
When Flo finally seemed to accept that Claire was determined to keep the
blanket on her back, Claire patted Flo behind her huge ears before climbing
down, saying, “You could have told me earlier that you’re really a Mets fan.”
Separated by a wire mesh, the elephant and a somewhat
nervous volunteer had taken turns trying to throw softballs through a tire
about forty feet away. Flo was rewarded with a treat for every successful
throw, as well as lusty cheers from the Delamain delegation. While the
delegation was delighted and dumbfounded when Flo won, Claire was not surprised.
She knew that Flo’s favorite game was throwing things. Indeed, the reason Flo
had ended up at the park—which had been set up to serve as a refuge for
superannuated elephants—was that one of her games in her former life at an Ohio
zoo had been to throw rocks at the monorail that brought tourists through the
elephant enclosure. Her unnerving accuracy had properly unnerved the
administrators. Once Flo had arrived, Claire had set up the tire as a way of
redirecting Flo’s interest in throwing things in less destructive ways.
Following the Delamain group’s departure, Claire stopped by
the trailer where the postdocs and grad students were collecting and analyzing
data. She thanked them for taking the time to explain their work.
“Should I be polishing my résumé?” asked Thelma, an acoustic
specialist from Arizona State.
Claire smiled. She had really promoted the team, telling the
delegation that the project basically ran itself. She’d noticed that when she
made that point, one of the trustees had caught the eye of the other and arched
an eyebrow. What was that about? With the vantage of hindsight, Claire now
realized that this should have put her on full alert. At the time, though, she
had simply thought that the trustee was signaling that he’d been impressed. That’s
what she told the staff.
“I think we’re good for the duration. Fingers crossed,
“Hope so,” said Pete, a statistician and pattern recognition
expert, “and if it’s so, I’d bet it was Flo, not us, who sealed the deal.”
Claire shrugged amiably. He was right. “Could be, but
they’re not funding Flo’s baseball career. They’re funding us—you. This is
good, solid work, and you all should be proud.”
She then took her leave and stopped by to thank Flo and
Mona, but mostly to spend a few moments with Teddy. She couldn’t get enough of
Teddy, who was, without success, chasing a flock of squawking geese. Teddy’s
earnest clumsiness had endeared him to every elephant and human he encountered.
The park was situated on land donated by an elephant-loving
farmer, and a converted bunkhouse served as Claire’s lodging. That evening,
with a warm breeze rustling the palmettos, Claire sat on her tiny porch, sipped
a glass of wine, and took stock of her situation.
Sitting in the Quonset, Claire shook her head at her naïveté
of just a few weeks earlier. Back then, she’d thought she was set on a solid
career path. She had settled in to the work and her experiments. The team was
producing pioneering research on ultrasonic communication. Byron Gwynne, who
was writing a comprehensive and highly anticipated monograph on elephant
evolution, had written that he would be citing one of her papers. And the head
of the Center for the Study of Evolution at Rushmere University, where she was
attached as an adjunct professor, had told her that if she continued producing
solid research, she was up for a tenure track associate professorship.
She had made compromises. She’d had to put aside the study
of animal intelligence—her true passion—but she felt well situated for a
productive career in academia.
A slight frown had wrinkled her features as she considered
her romantic life, which might best be described as idling on care and
maintenance. It consisted of an on-again, off-again, long distance relationship
with an utterly unreliable writer (they’d met when he interviewed her for an
article on elephant communication—he called her for what he termed “follow-up”
two weeks after the article was published).
It was something of a wonder that the relationship continued
at all. True, John was very funny, which ranked him high in the attributes
Claire considered important, and he was anathema to her mother, which also gave
him a certain cachet. Her mother would regularly send her clippings about how
writers earned less than baristas at Starbucks—hell, Claire thought, many were
baristas at Starbucks—while reminding her that she was thirty-two and not
getting any younger.
Or, as her mother, with her inexhaustible store of mixed
metaphors, had phrased it, “You don’t want to be rushing for the train after
the ship has left port.” With regard to the prospect of children, her mother
had a point, though Claire would have happily co-parented with Mona and devote
her maternal feelings to raising Teddy to be a successful young elephant. She smiled
at the thought of her mother’s expression if she presented that idea. John
would probably start looking pretty good in her mother’s eyes.
Human factors notwithstanding, Claire had thought she was in
a good place. In a world where talented scientists scrambled for any work, she
had a good position and it involved meaningful research. If she played it
right, a tenured professorship could be hers. She decided that she would put
her all into that prospect. Then she might turn her attention to upgrading her love
life. In truth, her mother needn’t worry about her marrying John. She smiled at
the thought of how John, who had a very lofty opinion of his place in the
universe, would react if he knew that he was serving as a placeholder. “Don’t
screw things up,” she murmured to herself as she took her last sip of wine.
About the Book
Deep Past: A Novel RosettaBooks (May 14, 2019) Hardcover: 336 pages ISBN-10: 1948122375 ISBN-13: 978-1948122375 Digital ASIN: B07PMF4Y17
If nature could invent intelligence of our scale in a blink of geologic time, who’s to say it hasn’t been done before…
A routine dig in Kazakhstan takes a radical turn for thirty-two-year-old anthropologist Claire Knowland when a stranger turns up at the site with a bizarre find from a remote section of the desolate Kazakh Steppe. Her initial skepticism of this mysterious discovery gives way to a realization that the find will shake the very foundations of our understanding of evolution and intelligence.
Corrupt politics of Kazakhstan force Claire to take reckless chances with the discovery. Among the allies she gathers in her fight to save herself and bring the discovery to light is Sergei Anachev, a brilliant but enigmatic Russian geologist who becomes her unlikely protector even as he deals with his own unknown crisis.
Ultimately, Claire finds herself fighting not just for the discovery and her academic reputation, but for her very life as great power conflict engulfs the unstable region and an unscrupulous oligarch attempts to take advantage of the chaos.
Drawing on Eugene Linden’s celebrated non-fiction investigations into what makes humans different from other species, this international thriller mixes fact and the fantastical, the realities of academic politics, and high stakes geopolitics—engaging the reader every step of the way.
About the Author
Eugene Linden is an award-winning journalist and author on science, nature, and the environment. Deep Past draws on his long career in non-fiction as the author of ten books, including his celebrated works on animal intelligence and climate change: Apes, Men, and Language, the New York Times “Notable Book” Silent Partners, and the bestselling The Parrot’s Lament. His book, Winds of Change, which explored the connection between climate change and the rise and fall of civilizations, was awarded the Grantham Prize Special Award of Merit. For many years, Linden wrote about nature and global environmental issues for TIME where he garnered several awards including the American Geophysical Union’s Walter Sullivan Award. He has also contributed to the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and National Geographic, among many other publications.