Discovered: Earliest Evidence of High-Altitude Hunter-Gatherers

The Fincha Habera rock shelter in the Ethiopian Bale Mountains served as a residence for prehistoric hunter-gatherers. (Götz Ossendorf)

Archaeologists Uncover Evidence of an Ancient High-Altitude Human Dwelling

by Brigit Katz

Life in high-altitude mountains can be rough. Resources are scarce, the weather can be extreme and oxygen levels hover at dangerously low levels. Archaeologists have thus assumed that towering mountains and plateaus were among the last places to be populated by ancient humans. But a new study suggests that this assumption could be wrong.

Published in the journal Science, the research details a remarkable discovery in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains at a site located more than 11,000 feet above sea level. There, a team of experts unearthed a trove of artifacts—among them stone tools, clay fragments, burnt animal bones and a glass bead—indicating that people had lived there as early as 47,000 years ago. These finds, according to the study, represent “the earliest evidence of a prehistoric high-altitude [human] residential site.”

For decades, paleoanthropologists working in east Africa have been concentrating their attention on lower-altitude locations. “We were simply the first to go higher,” Götz Ossendorf, an archaeologist at the University of Cologne and lead author of the new study, tells Carl Zimmer of the New York Times. But reaching Fincha Habera, as the site of the new discovery is known, was no mean feat.

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