Researchers have found evidence in a KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) cave, in South Africa, that back at the dawn of the human species – over 200,000 years ago – people prepared beds for themselves to sleep on, according to a study published in Science magainze.
Wits University in Johannesburg says in a news release that the researchers in Border Cave – a well-known archaeological site on a cliff between eSwatini (Swaziland) and KZN – have found evidence that people have been using grass bedding to create comfortable areas for sleeping and working on at least 200 000 years ago.
“These beds, consisting of sheaves of grass of the broad-leafed Panicoideae subfamily were placed near the back of the cave on ash layers. The layers of ash was used to protect the people against crawling insects while sleeping. Today, the bedding layers are visually ephemeral traces of silicified grass, but they can be identified using high magnification and chemical characterisation,” says Wits.
The team who made the discovery include researchers from universities in SA (Wits), France, Belgium and Argentina.
“We speculate that laying grass bedding on ash was a deliberate strategy, not only to create a dirt-free, insulated base for the bedding, but also to repel crawling insects,” says Professor Lyn Wadley, principal researcher and lead author.
“Sometimes the ashy foundation of the bedding was a remnant of older grass bedding that had been burned to clean the cave and destroy pests. On other occasions, wood ash from fireplaces was also used as the clean surface for a new bedding layer.”
WATCH Early humans in South Africa used grass to create bedding, 200 000 years ago
“We know that people worked as well as slept on the grass surface because the debris from stone tool manufacture is mixed with the grass remains. Also, many tiny, rounded grains of red and orange ochre were found in the bedding where they may have rubbed off human skin or coloured objects,” says Wadley.
According to Wits, modern hunter-gatherer camps have fires as focal points; people regularly sleep alongside them and perform domestic tasks in social contexts. They say people at Border Cave also lit fires regularly, as can be seen by stacked fireplaces throughout the sequence dated between about 200 000 and 38 000 years ago.
Wadley says: “Our research shows that before 200 000 years ago, close to the origin of our species, people could produce fire at will, and they used fire, ash, and medicinal plants to maintain clean, pest-free camps. Such strategies would have had health benefits that advantaged these early communities.”
Wits says although hunter-gatherers tend to be mobile and seldom stay in one place for more than a few weeks, cleansing camps had the potential to extend potential occupancy.