The village where I grew up in Austria is exactly in the geographic center of Austria.  It has existed for hundreds of years, first settled by Slavic tribes who trekked upstream along alpine rivers to find a habitable home for themselves.  “Stoder,” the name of the village is derived from a Slavic word meaning “Cold Stony Place.” Later in the 19th Century, the inhabitants added the word “Hinter” meaning “behind.”  So the name “Hinterstoder” is “behind the cold stony place.”  I have written much about that town as it has left an indelible mark on my being.  It is where I learned the things that count, starting with the multiplication tables all the way to what is right and what is wrong. There is evidence that the area was known to Bronze Age people, who came from the west, a civilization called the Hallstadt culture.  They lived just one mountain pass away, the Salzsteig Joch, and did climb over it to enter the Steyr valley, named for the river Steyr, a remnant of the ancient glacier. Bronze age weapons were found in our valley.  The Hallstadt culture had mastered rendering metal from ore, which they worked into pots, weapons, and tools.  The whole area was rich in salt, which they mined and used in trade, the alpine streams being the ideal means of transporting the salt.  One of the most intact Neolithic humans was found in a frozen state not far away in the Ötztal to the south. Radiocarbon dating placed him living 5300 years ago.  He had copper tools and weapons with him and even sported several elaborate tattoos on his backside.

But the “Totes Gebirge” (the dead mountain range) history goes back even further, possibly 20 thousand years ago.  In 1943 a schoolteacher, Otto Körber, with archeologic interests, was alerted by two hunters who accidentally discovered a series of caves high in the mountains that had bones in them.  His investigation turned up a treasure trove of bones and shells of animals that were brought there to be prepared and eaten, that he dated back to the Neolithic period. He also found cutting and scraping stone tools, as well as small bones, hollowed out like a flute that made various sounds, presumably to create music or perhaps to communicate at a greater distance.

The Alps had modern human habitation, Homo sapiens, by at least 30,000 years ago, towards the end of the last glaciation, the Würm, which lasted from 115,000 years to 11,700 years ago.  It was the glaciation just before that, the Riss that advanced and receded at least four times to create most of the river valleys of the Alps.

The interglacial period was relatively short, just 15,000 years. The red line shows the valley level as carved out by the Riss, while the blue line demonstrated the earth excavated by the Würm, to create the valley floor as it is now. When that glacier receded, it left a vast lake.  It was warm enough that life was possible in the lake.  Shellfish were abundant in that lake and were a mainstay for the humans that came down from their higher cave dwellings and carried them up to be consumed there, where the shells can still be found. The current valley floor has petrified shells embedded in sedimentary rock, formed at the lake’s bottom that now are readily found in what is left of the large lake, a river, and flat surrounding land.   

When returning from one of my visits to my old home, I brought one of those rocks back, that now sits as a reminder of those ancient times on my fireplace hearth.  It was quite a challenge for me to carry the rock in my carry-on luggage.  The TSA just didn’t understand what the reason was for “rocks in my carry-on.”