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View over Swaziland from the mouth of Border Cave. Source: (Public Domain)

Newly Discovered ‘Oldest Bed’ Found in South African Cave

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Archaeologists in South Africa have claimed that they have evidence of the oldest bed ever found. They believe that they have discovered bedding material that dates from an incredible 200,000 years ago. It is much older than the earliest bedding that has previously been uncovered by experts.

The exciting discovery was made in Border Cave which is a deep rock shelter in the Lebombo Mountains, in South Africa, not far from the border with Swaziland. In a report published in Science, researchers say that it contains a well-preserved record of on-off human occupation spanning nearly 230,000 years,’. It has yielded bones, artifacts, ochre, tools, and organic material which has allowed specialists to better understand the lives and times of the ancient people who inhabited the cave.

Border Cave Excavation site, Lebombo Mountains, South Africa. ( Dr Lucinda Backwell/ Wits University)

Border Cave Excavation site, Lebombo Mountains, South Africa. ( Dr Lucinda Backwell/ Wits University )

Mysterious white flecks

The discovery was made by archaeologist Lyn Wadley, from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and her colleagues. While investigating the Border Cave she noticed some white material in the sediment in the floor of the cave.  She told Science, ‘I looked up at these with a magnifying glass and realized that these were plant traces’.

The archaeologist and her team removed the small flecks from the sediment and placed them in little packets of plaster, for safekeeping. The material was then analyzed using chemicals and examined under a microscope and it was determined that the white material came from the ‘Panicoideae family of grasses that grows in the area’ reports the Daily Mail . The material had been compressed and flattened in the distant past. Moreover, there was a great deal of plant remains found in the sediment.

Preserved grass fragments uncovered in a South African cave, left, are by far the oldest known examples of grass bedding, researchers say. Close-up images of those fragments taken by a scanning electron microscope, such as the one shown at right, helped to narrow down what type of grasses were used for bedding. (Image: L. Wadley, Science)

Preserved grass fragments uncovered in a South African cave, left, are by far the oldest known examples of grass bedding, researchers say. Close-up images of those fragments taken by a scanning electron microscope, such as the one shown at right, helped to narrow down what type of grasses were used for bedding. (Image: L. Wadley, Science)

The oldest bed?

Wadley and her colleagues believe that they had found evidence of bedding. It seems that the ancient people brought grass into the cave and formed a bed with it, which they slept upon. The grass was used to provide the ancient inhabitants of the cave with a clean and comfortable space for sleeping.

The plant material was found in a layer of sediment near the cave’s bedrock. Two human teeth were found at this level and using carbon dating they were dated to roughly 200,000 years ago. If the dating is correct, then it is the earliest evidence for bedding yet found. Archaeologists previously found material used in bedding from 77,000 years ago in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave . While layers of plants possibly being used as a bed have been identified in Israel that date to over 180,000 years ago.

Baena Preysler, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid who studied the results of the research agreed with the findings. She is quoted by Science as saying It’s “the most plausible interpretation”. Preysler hailed the discovery as joining “the ranks of other ‘incredible discoveries’ from the African archaeological record”.

A bed of grass - with built in repellent

During the analysis of the material, the researchers found something quite revealing. They found the remains of burnt camphor, which is an aromatic plant and is often used in Africa as an insect repellent. The researchers believed that “Ash was possibly raked from hearths to create a clean, odor-controlling base for bedding” according to the report.

As insects move through ash, they become dehydrated and this means that they avoid areas where it is present. Dr Wadley is quoted by the Daily Mail as saying:

‘People also used medicinal plants to repel insects. Sometimes they burned their grass bedding, and this would have killed pests and cleaned the site.’

The researchers believe that the evidence shows that the ancient people who lived here developed strategies to make life more comfortable. They are quoted by the Daily Mail as saying that their study shows the “early potential for the cognitive, behavioral, and social complexity of Stone Age humans that became more apparent from around 100,000 years ago”. The study is offering new insights into how ancient Africans used fire and natural resources to cope with their often-challenging environment.

The oldest bed?

It should be noted that not everyone agrees with the team’s findings. Some cast doubt on the dating of the bedding, because they believe that the teeth that were carbon dated are unreliable. Dani Nadel, an Israeli archaeologist told Science that “Sometimes such dates are not very accurate.” Moreover, bedding alone does not demonstrate that the humans who lived here were particularly cognitively advanced, as many species of animals and birds also used such material for bedding purposes.

The discovery is significant as it may prompt other experts to re-examine the plant material at other sites. This could help them to make discoveries concerning early humans. The latest research may help the South African Government’s campaign to secure Border Cave the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Top image: View over Swaziland from the mouth of Border Cave. Source: ( Public Domain )

By Ed Whelan

Comments

"The discovery is significant as it may prompt other experts to re-examine the plant material at other sites."

It would be interesting to reinvestigate Neanderthal sites. The idea of Neanderthals using bedding does not seem far-fetched.

Personally, I wouldn't be surprised if any competitive advantage enjoyed by sapiens over neanderthalensis came down to something fortuitous, like canine domestication.

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