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Earliest known beds are 227,000-year-old piles of grass and ash

By Michael Le Page

13 August 2020

border cave

The Border cave in South Africa

A. Kruger

People living in the Border cave in southern Africa slept on grass bedding 227,000 years ago – by far the oldest discovery of its kind.

“That’s quite close to the origin of our species,” says Lyn Wadley at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Her team has been excavating Border cave in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, which was inhabited on and off during prehistory. The peoples who lived there left many layers of deposits that have been preserved by the very dry conditions.

Wadley’s team has found grass bedding in many of these layers, made from several species including Panicum maximum, which still grows outside the cave. The oldest layers containing the bedding are between 227,000 and 183,000 years old.

This grass bedding was often on top of ash layers. In some places these ashes are of burned grasses, suggesting people burned their old, pest-infested bedding and placed new bedding on top.

In other places, the ashes are of burned wood, suggesting ashes from wood fires were spread out and grass placed on top. This means people were deliberately putting grass bedding on ashes to deter crawling insects, says Wadley.

The team also found burned bits of camphor wood – camphor is still used as an insect repellent today. “Maybe it was burned for the smoke it creates that would repel flying insects,” says Wadley.

She has no doubt that the grasses were used for bedding. They are found only towards the sheltered rear of the cave, and often near to fireplaces. In fact, sometimes the edges of the bedding are singed.

Shards of rock mixed in with some bedding suggest people sat on the bedding as they made stone tools.

There are even bits of ochre powder in the bedding that might have rubbed off people’s skin as they slept. However, there is ochre in the roof of the cave, so the team cannot be sure it didn’t fall from the roof.

Before this discovery, the oldest-known bedding was 77,000 years old. Wadley found it at Sibudu cave, also in KwaZulu-Natal.

Her team has also found evidence of people roasting vegetables as long ago as 170,000 years. “If you want to get to the nitty-gritty of everyday life, look at plants,” says Wadley.

Her team presumes the people living in Border cave 227,000 years ago were modern humans – Homo sapiens – but cannot be sure it wasn’t another species such as Homo naledi.



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