Oldest high mountain settlement discovered

People settled in the high mountains of Ethiopia 40, 000 years ago

Today, the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia are glacier-free - but 40, 000 years ago it was different. G tz Ossendorf
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Extreme habitat: In Ethiopia, researchers have discovered the oldest traces of a high mountain settlement so far. Finds from a rock shelter at almost 3, 500 meters altitude prove that people lived permanently there about 40, 000 years ago. Our ancestors apparently adapted to life in this extreme situation remarkably well: they used melt water from the glaciers, hunted giant rats and removed obsidian in the mountains.

Thin air, strong UV exposure, extreme temperature fluctuations and inhospitable terrain: Life in the high mountains means a life under extreme conditions. Nevertheless, humans have also conquered this habitat over time. But when did our ancestors first ascend to elevations of 2, 500 meters or more and settle there?

For a long time researchers assumed that the settlement of the high mountains only relatively late in human history began. However, archeological findings from, among other places, the Tibetan highlands and the highlands of the Andes increasingly indicate that humans may have opened up the high mountains earlier than expected.

This rock shelter served as a habitation for 40, 000 years ago. G tz Ossendorf

Dwelling in extreme height

How early, as an exciting find from Ethiopia proves: In the local Bale Mountains, G tz Ossendorf from the University of K ln and his colleagues have reached almost the same height 3, 500 meters of surprisingly old colonization traces discovered. In the rock shelter Fincha Habera, the scientists found stone-age remains of bones, remnants of fireplaces and the preparation of food, as well as objects that had to be brought from lower elevations.

This made it clear: Fincha Habera was used by people as a living space again and again. But when exactly? The dating of the finds revealed that the shelter was repeatedly populated 47, 000 to 31, 000 years ago. "This site is one of the earliest long-term residences in a high mountain region that has been known to us worldwide, " explains Ossendorf. display

Life below glaciers

In order to find out more about the conditions under which the early high mountain settlers lived, the research team reconstructed, among other things, the climate that prevailed at that time in the mountainous region. Despite the altitude, the Bale Mountains, despite their altitude, are unglazed due to the situation in the inner tropics, "reports co-author Alexander Groos of the University of Bern. "Mor nenw lle and other glacial remains, however, attest that the Ethiopian highlands were intensively glaciated during the last glacial period."

Jawbone of Giant Mole Rat - she was the main food source of the Stone Age settlers. G tz Ossendorf

According to the results, the shelter was located 500 meters below the glaciers. Due to the phase-wise melting of the ice, the Stone Age settlers had such an important source of water nearby. As a food the J gern and collectors served mainly the giant molt rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus), as Ossendorf and his colleagues found out. The rodent, endemic to the Bale Mountains, was available year round in large numbers, easy to hunt, and was grilled by the settlers by the open fire.

"Enormous adjustment potential"

Another resource could have made the life of the Stone Age people savory. Excavations and exploration revealed that at five points at 4, 200 meters high, obsidian was won. It is known that our ancestors used this volcanic rock glass to make sharp-edged tools. The inhabitants of Fincha Habera also evidently set out from their base camp to procure this precious resource. This is also supported by numerous stone artifacts from the material.

According to the researchers, the record-high high mountain settlement not only provides new insights into the development of high-altitude habitats by humans. "For us, these traces of settlement and their investigation also give an extraordinary insight into what human beings have to offer in terms of adaptation, both physically and culturally. strategically adjust to its habitat, "concludes Ossendorf. (Science, 2019; doi: 10.1126 / science.aaw8942)

Source: University of Bern / Philipps-University Marburg / University of Cologne

- Daniel Albat