Out of Africa – Late Pleistocene Rock Shelter Stratigraphies and Palaeoenvironments in Northeastern Africa

Svenja Meyer 200pxWinner Dr.-Prill-Price - University of Cologne:
Svenja Meyer
Multiskalige Untersuchungen zur Rekonstruktion geomorphologischer Prozesse im Abri Mochena Borago (Äthiopien) und seinem Einzugsgebiet


Principal Investigators: J. Richter, O. Bubenzer, R. Vogelsang, K. Kindermann

Regional climatic changes and environmental conditions during the Late Pleistocene play a major role in human adaptive behaviour in Northeast Africa. The focus on the interaction and synchronisation of cultural and climatic processes requires a sound archaeological and palaeoenvironmental database as well as multiple lines of analysis. As the two research areas in Ethiopia and Egypt provide different altitudinal, climatic, and geomorphological configurations, a comparison of the regional results offers new aspects to the global discussion of climatic change and human responses.

Northeastern Africa is the centre of origin and dispersal of modern humans through and out of Africa. Ethiopia is of special palaeoanthropological interest. Here, fossil bones of the earliest known Homo sapiens are dated to 200-160 ka. Furthermore, the southwestern highlands of Ethiopia are, due to their modern favourable environmental conditions, a potential retreat area in times of drought and famine, such as the dry and cold climatic conditions during the MIS 4 (~ 70-40 ka). Population expansions during times of climatic amelioration are hypothesised to have resulted in migrations from such refugia. Potential routes are the “Southern Dispersal Route” from the eastern Horn across the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden towards Arabia, or the “Northern Dispersal Route” through Egypt and the Sinai to the Levant. In the Levant, the earliest fossil evidence of modern humans dates to ~ 90 ka.

Between Ethiopia and the Levant, no remains of early modern humans have been found yet, and the archaeological background of this interesting period is not well known. The majority of archaeological finds are from open-air surface sites, which do not permit elaborated chronological differentiation of the Middle Palaeolithic and Middle Stone Age (the archaeological stages associated with African modern humans) in northeastern Africa. Rock shelters, however, can provide conditions that allow for repeated occupation and in many cases have trapped sediments that incorporate archaeological layers with well-preserved artefacts and datable organic materials. Promising rock shelters are known from southwestern Ethiopia, where a test excavation at the site of Moche Borago by our designated collaborators Steven Brandt (University of Florida) and Elisabeth Hildebrand (Stony Brook University, New York) yielded Late Pleistocene layers more than 50 ka. Faunal remains are present in levels dating to > 40 ka, and thus permit the dating and reconstruction of the environmental conditions as well as the mode of subsistence. The many lakes and swamps in the research area are excellent palaeoclimatic archives and have the potential for coring (see project A3).

Whereas Ethiopia is the starting point, Egypt is an important area en route to the Levant. As it is bound by the bottleneck of the Sinai Peninsula connecting Africa and Asia, Egyptprovides an exciting research background. Due to the geomorphological setting and the changes from semiarid to arid climatic conditions in the transition zone from the tropical climate regime with summer rains to the Mediterranean region with winter rains, the direction of spread and communication of people and cultural traits were channelled and restricted to a relatively small region. However, the way of the first anatomically modern humans and their successors “Out of Africa” into the Levant is poorly understood and the amount of stratigraphic and dating evidence from Late Pleistocene archaeological sites in Egypt is limited. The Nile Valley is difficult to investigate because of modern intensive cultivation and population agglomeration combined with specific geomorphological conditions (extensive fluvial deposits). Only a few living sites from the Middle Palaeolithic have been encountered in the valley; most of those discovered are special task sites, e.g. for quarrying chert cobbles (Vermeersch 2000 & 2002). In contrast to the Western Desert, the geomorphological conditions of the Eastern Desert offer a better area of investigation, as indicated by the research carried out by the Belgian mission of the University of Leuven during the 1990s (Vermeersch 1994, Van Peer et al. 1996). As some investigated sites were not exhaustively excavated and sampled, they form suitable starting points for further studies. In cooperation with Philip van Peer from the University of Leuven, detailed and secure dating series combined with archaeological research will provide a highresolution chronology of the cultural and climatic development. Other promising rockshelters are expected in the Wadi Qena and are known from the Gallala Plateau some hundred kilometres to the north, such as the Nimir Cave (“Leopards Cave”). Up to now, collections at this site yielded only Holocene material, but the untouched lower deposits promise Pleistocene sediments (Hobbs & Goodman 1995).

The CRC 806 thanks the following cooperation partners for their efforts:

  • Philip van Peer (lithic analysis, fieldwork)
    Prehistoric Archaeology Unit, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven
  • Steven Brandt (lithic analysis, fieldwork)
    Department of Anthropology, University of Florida
  • Erich Fisher(GIS, spatial analysis and modelling)
    School of Human Evolution & Social Change, Arizona State University
  • Augusto Mangini, Norbert Frank, Nicole Vollweiler & René Eichstädter (spelothem dating)
    Institute of Environmental Physics, University Heidelberg
  • Hubert Berke (archaeozoological determinations)
    ArchäoZoologie Köln
  • Wim van Neer & Veerle Linseele (archaeozoological determinations)
    Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels
  • Veerle Rots (use trace analysis)
    Département des sciences historiques, University Liège
  • Andreas Bolten (GIS, spatial analysis and modelling)
    Geographisches Institut, Universität zu Köln
  • Dustin White & Paul Albert (tephra analysis)
    RESET, Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford
  • Josephine Lesur (archaeozoological determinations)
    Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris
  • Hong Wang (AMS dating)
    Illinois State Geological Survey, University of Illinois, Champaign


1st Phase - Research Programme
  2nd Phase - Research Programme
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 2nd Phase - Posters presented at international Congresses & Workshops
806 A1 Poster kk-V07 small   806 A1 Poster 2014 HGO2014 small  
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806 A1 Poster 2014 AdG2014 small   806 A1 Poster Mochena Borago 2014 small   806 A1 Eth Poster 130325 small
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806 A1 Eth Poster 110414 small   806 A1 AKGeo Meyer Vogelsang 2014 small   806 A1 MeyerSeidel2015 Poster small
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806 A1 A2 2015 Dendi WorkInProgress Poster small   806 A1 2016 InsideOutside Meyer small   806 A1 Henselowsky et al 2015 Geomorph small
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806 A1 Henselowsky et al. 2015 Geoarch small   806 A1 Henselowsky et al. 2016 Multi small   806 A1 Kindermann et al. 2016 Lakeshore small
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