Photo of rock shelter entrance from outside, and from inside with a person bending over to show how low it is.

Enlarge / Views of Fincha Habera from outside and from inside. One might speculate on how often its Middle Stone Age residents forgot to duck on the way in or out. (credit: Gotz Ossendorf)

Life at high elevations is tough, as the lower air pressure makes it hard for the body to get enough oxygen into the bloodstream. The weather is often cold but can shift without warning. And if you want to stay very long, you’ve got to find food in an environment where plants and animals are relatively scarce. But around 47,000 years ago, people apparently lived (at least for a while) in a rock shelter 3,469 meters (11,400 feet) above sea level in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains.

Archaeologists found hundreds of stone tools, thousands of discarded animal bones, and ancient hearths buried in layers of sediment on the floor of Fincha Habera rock shelter. According to radiocarbon dates from charcoal and burnt bone, the first people lived up here between 47,000 and 31,000 years ago. The site is one of the earliest examples we have of people living at high elevations, instead of just venturing up to collect stone or forage.

Until recently, paleoanthropologists thought that people didn’t tackle the challenges of life at high elevations—in places like the Tibetan Plateau, the Peruvian Altiplano, or the Ethiopian mountains—until pretty late in our species’ world takeover. High places are difficult, so it made sense that people would have put the effort off as long as possible, until they found a really compelling reason. This find, along with others, suggests ancient people (and likely our hominin cousins) were much more capable than we’ve sometimes realized.

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