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Habitation in high mountain regions: Humans settled near glaciers earlier than previously believed

Meltwater, volcanic glass and giant rats helped humans survive in the Ethiopian highlands 40.000 years ago / publication in ‘Science’

Sampling of erratic boulders, which were deposited by a glacier on the central Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains. Consequently, the rock samples were analysed and dated to reconstruct the time of the respective glacier advance.

Already about 40,000 years ago, people dwelled permanently in high mountains and near glaciers. That is the finding of analyses of traces of habitation from the Bale Mountains in north-eastern Ethiopia, conducted by a research team led by Dr. Ralf Vogelsang at the University of Cologne’s Department of Prehistoric Archaeology. The results have now been published in ‘Science’.

The peaks of the Bale Mountains are up to 4,300 metres high. At these altitudes, humans are not only exposed to less oxygen, but also to stronger UV radiation and cold. The research team from Cologne is exploring on site in Ethiopia why the inhospitable high mountains and the Afro-Alpine ecosystem were populated at all, when habitation there began and with which strategies humans survived.

The scientists carried out excavations about 700 metres below the glacier in the rock overhang ‘Fincha Habera’ and found various archaeological remains such as Stone Age bone and charcoal remains or sharp-edged stone tools made of obsidian (volcanic glass). ‘Based on the radiometric dating of various archaeological materials, this site is the earliest long-term dwelling in a high mountain region known to us anywhere in the world,’ said the first author of the study, Dr Götz Ossendorf from the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology.

40,000 years ago, the settlers survived mainly on large rats (so-called giant mole rats), which were grilled on an open fire. They developed a strategy to use the rock overhang as a base camp. To hunt rats, collect meltwater and find the precious obsidian raw material, they climbed up to the higher glacier.

‘For us, these traces of habitation and their investigation provide an extraordinary insight into human beings’ enormous potential to adapt physically, but also culturally and strategically to their habitat,’ Ossendorf added.

The postdoctoral researcher Ossendorf and the doctoral researcher Minassie Girma work in the subproject ‘The earliest development of high mountain areas by humans – creation of an alpine cultural landscape in the tropics’ at the University of Cologne led by Ralf Vogelsang, which is part of Research Unit 2358 ‘The Mountain Exile Hypothesis’. The research group, which has been funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) since 2016 and was initiated by the University of Marburg. ‘The Mountain Exile Hypothesis’ is an interdisciplinary study of the relationship between humans and the environment in this African high mountain region. For the current study, soil scientists at the University of Halle-Wittenberg has identified human traces biogeochemically. In addition, glacier specialists at the University of Bern (Switzerland) examined the environmental conditions of the time.

Media Contact:
Dr Götz Ossendorf
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte der Universität zu Köln

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Ossendorf G. et al.: Middle Stone Age foragers resided in high elevations of the glaciated Bale Mountains, Ethiopia. Science, August 9, 2019.
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw8942