Archeologists investigating the interior of a cliffside cave in South Africa have discovered what could be the world’s oldest bedding.
The grass bedding, discovered in the Border Cave of the Lebombo Mountains, was put atop layers of ash more than 200,000 years ago, perhaps to keep insects like ticks crawling at bay.
The results, published in the journal called Science, travel back by at least 100,000 years the earliest evidence of human-constructed bedding. Previously, the oldest known sample found in Sibudu, South Africa, was a 77,000-year-old grass bedding.
The Border Cave was occupied by humans so called because it sits between the South African border and eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland), sporadically between 227,000 and 1,000 years ago. More recently, the site has yielded a number of important archaeological discoveries associated with these early settlers.
Lead author Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at Witwatersrand University in South Africa, tells that excavations at the cave found “ephemeral fossilized grass.” She says the grass layer was possibly at least one foot thick and “must have been as comfortable as any camp bed or haystack.”
The fossilized plant materials were identified by Wadley and her colleagues using scanning electron microscopes and infrared spectroscopy. In addition to wide-leafed grasses, the team discovered traces of burned camphor bush, which is still used as an aerial insect repellent by people in rural East Africa.
“Through the use of ash and medicinal plants to repel insects, we realize that they had some pharmacological knowledge,” she explains. “Furthermore, they could extend their stay at favored campsites by planning ahead and cleaning them through burning fusty beds. They therefore had some basic knowledge of health care through practicing hygiene.”
Mixed in with the bedding, the team found blood red particles and stone flakes probably chipped off during toolmaking. The rock slivers may suggest that the soft bedding was used as a seat for everyday chores, while the red pigment may have rubbed off the skin of people or other canvases from the Stone Age.
The researchers can’t be completely sure that ancient people were sleeping on the bedding of the grass. But Javier Baena Preysler, an archaeologist who was not involved in the study says that this is the “most likely answer.”
Wadley and her team performed radiocarbon tests on a pair of teeth found in the same strata of the sediments of the cave to determine the age of the proposed bedding. However, experts point out that depending on only two teeth instead of examining the real plant remnants may have yielded inaccurate dates.
Since the final layer of plant bedding was left unburned, archeologists believe that the site was finally abandoned by the humans who once lined the floor of the Border Cave with gentle, green grass.