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Ethiopian rock shelter earliest evidence of high-altitude prehistoric life

August 08, 2019

Archaeologists have uncovered the earliest evidence of high-altitude prehistoric living in the form of a rock shelter in Ethiopia, though whether the site was inhabited permanently is unclear. According to the report - based on archeological, biogeochemical, glacial chronological and other analyses - more than 30,000 years ago, the Fincha Habera rock shelter, a site situated more than 11,000 feet above sea level in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia, was home to Middle Stone Age foragers who made use of nearby resources and feasted upon plentiful giant mole-rats. Life at high-altitude imposes a number of limitations and stresses on the human body. Because of this, it has long been assumed that the peopling of high-elevation environments - those more than 2,500 meters above sea level (masl) - has only recently occurred in human history. However, from the Andean altiplano to the Tibetan Plateau, a growing number of new archaeological finds in high places across the globe has begun to show otherwise. Still, these sites are rare, and much remains to be discovered about the nature of human high-altitude settlements. Following excavations at Fincha Habera, which the team approached on foot or by pack horse , as well as based on archaeological surveys and paleoenvironmental analyses, Götz Ossendorf and colleagues present results that push back the antiquity of a human presence at high elevation. They report thousands of Middle Stone Age (MSA) artifacts, including locally collected stones, burnt animal bones, and the hearths of former fires. Radiocarbon dates from the site's earliest contexts suggest that occupation began during the Late Pleistocene, sometime between 47,000 and 31,000 years ago. While the environment enabled long-term stays at Fincha Habera repeatedly over several thousand years, the authors say, the permanence of these occupations cannot be proven nor refuted. In a related Perspective, Mark Aldenderfer discusses Ossendorf et al.'s findings in the context of recent high-altitude studies, some of which present conclusions largely unsupported by underlying data. "Words matter, and it's time for archaeologists working on the world's high plateaus to be more deliberate about the terms they use to describe and frame their findings," writes Aldenderfer. To that end, he describes the restraint applied in descriptions in the report by Ossendorf's team as "admirable."

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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