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

(Research project A1, Collaborative Research Centre 806 „Our Way to Europe – Culture-Environment Interaction and Human Mobility in the Late Quaternary“)


Principal Investigators: Jürgen Richter, Olaf Bubenzer, Ralf Vogelsang & Karin Kindermann

Cooperation partners: Steven Brandt (University Florida) & Philip van Peer (University Leuven)

Funding: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (since July 2009)

Between 70,000 and 50,000 years before today, anatomically modern humans (AMH) dispersed across and out of Africa to eventually populate all inhabitable continents. Knowledge of palaeoenvironments and human behavioural patterns in Africa prior, during and after these dispersals is crucial for understanding how and why hunter-gatherers were able to adapt rapidly to the new environments they encountered. However, few well-dated sites from this time period are known from the Horn of Africa, one of the purported staging areas for population movements, and from Northeast Africa, the region with the earliest evidence of AMH outside the considered source region. Archaeological and geoarchaeological research both in rock shelters and in their nearer surroundings in Ethiopia as well as in Egypt provide key sites for the investigation of different “Out of Africa hypothesis”.

Archaeological research in the south-western Ethiopian highlands, with a special focus on cave stratigraphies, yielded at Mochena Borago rock shelter (fig. 1) the first securely dated archaeological sequence from the Horn of Africa for the later periods of the dispersal of AMH. Three major lithostratigraphic groups incorporating occupational episodes have yielded charcoal radiocarbon ages between 53,000 and 38,000 years before today; deeper deposits have been tested but remain undated (Brandt et al. 2012). Additionally, promising open air sites along the margins of the main Ethiopian Rift provided first assemblages from the early phase of AMH and research should be increased in the catchment area of the Bilate River.

Fig. 1 Spherical panorama of Mochena Borago Rockshelter, with the excavation area in the foreground.

Whereas Ethiopia is the starting point, Egypt is an important area en route to the Levant (cf. Wurz & van Peer 2012). As it is bound by the bottleneck of the Sinai Peninsula connecting Africa and Asia, Egypt provides an exciting research background. However, the way of the first AMH 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 Northeast Africa is limited.


Fig. 2 View into Sodmein Cave during the archaeological field campaign 2010, with the excavation area in the front right.

One of the rare living sites in this time range in Northeast Africa – beside the Haua Fteah in Libya – is Sodmein Cave (fig. 2), in the Red Sea Mountains of Egypt’s Eastern Desert. Although it was discovered about 30 years ago (Prickett 1979), systematic research began not until the 1990s by the Belgian Middle Egypt Prehistoric Project (BMEPP) of the University Leuven. Since 2010, geoarchaeological and archaeological field research has continued in cooperation with the universities Cologne and Leuven under the aegis of the CRC 806 “Our Way to Europe”.
This outstanding cave stratigraphy is spanning with more than 4 m stratified human occupation debris from the Middle Palaeolithic (or Middle Stone Age) up to the Neolithic. The lowermost levels of Sodmein can be attributed to the Nubian Complex, the regional manifestation of the Late MSA in Northeast Africa (van Peer et al. 1996, Moeyersons et al. 2002). The archaeological results indicate that the cave was visited regularly by humans during the Pleistocene and later during the Holocene. This also happened during the dispersal period of humans around and after 60,000 years before today as shown by the first OSL-datings of layer G, which gave a mean value by 62,000 ± 5,000 years. Hence, it constitutes a key site for the reconstruction of Late Pleistocene human-nature interaction in North Africa.



Brandt, S.A., Fisher, E.C., Hildebrand, E.A., Vogelsang, R., Ambrose, S.H., Lesur, J. & H. Wang (2012) Early MIS 3 occupation of Mochena Borago Rockshelter, Southwest Ethiopian Highlands: Implications for Late Pleistocene archaeology, paleoenvironments and modern human dispersals. Quaternary International 274: 38-54.

Moeyersons, J., Vermeersch, P.M. & P. van Peer (2002) Dry cave deposits and their palaeoenvironmental significance during the last 115 ka, Sodmein Cave, Red Sea Mountains, Egypt. Quaternary Science Reviews 21: 837-851.

Prickett, M. (1979) Quseir regional survey. In: Whitcomb, D.S. & J.H. Johnson (eds.), Quseir Al-Qadim 1978 preliminary report. American Research Centre in Egypt, Cairo: 257-349.

Van Peer, P., Vermeersch, P.M., Moeyersons, J. & W. van Neer (1996) Palaeolithic sequence of Sodmein Cave, Red Sea Mountains, Egypt. In: G. Pwiti & R. Soper (eds.), Papers from the 10th Congress of the Pan African Association for Prehistory and Related Studies: 149-156.

Wurz, S. & P. van Peer (2012) Out of Africa, the Nile Valley and the Northern Route. South African Archaeological Bulletin 67: 168-179.