Our distant ancestors made a comfortable bed for a relaxing 200,000 years ago. That’s according to a new study published in the prestigious journal Science. In these beds they incorporated tufts of grass on top of an ash layer to keep insects away.
The researchers were doing excavations in a South African cave called ‘Border Cave’ when they came across the striking beds. The cave is a well-known archaeological site on a cliff located between the southern country of ESwatini and the South African province of KwaZoeloe-Natal. The beds consist of tufts of grass from the broadleaf plant panicoideae: the second largest subfamily of grasses with more than 3500 species.
It is a striking find, which proves that some 200,000 years ago people already used grasses for a comfortable sleeping place. Even though they probably did more than just sleep. “We know that people both worked and slept on the grass,” says research leader Lyn Wadley. “We found debris from making stone tools mixed with grass residues. Many small, round grains of red and orange ochre have also been found. These may have been detached from human skin or from coloured objects.”
The researchers discovered that the tufts of grass had been placed on a layer of ash. “We speculate that this was a deliberate strategy,” Wadley said. “Not only to create a dirt-free, isolated base, but also to ward off creeping insects.”
However, the discovery of the grass-made beds was not the only thing special. The researchers found that residents of the Border Cave also regularly started fires. The team found several traces of campfires in 200,000 to 38,000-year-old earth layers. “Our research shows that before 200,000 years ago, shortly after the birth of our species, humans were already able to make fire,” Concludes Wadley. “So they used fire, ash and medicinal plants to keep their whereabouts clean and free of pests. Such methods were likely to be beneficial to health and benefited these early communities.”
Normally, hunters and collectors often wandered around and rarely stayed in one place for more than a few weeks. However, the Border Cave shows that such residences may have been occupied for longer. Moreover, this is not the first time that important discoveries have been made here. Previously, numerous old, bone-made tools have been discovered. Like jewelry made from ostrich shells and poison that may have been used on hunting weapons. And recently, researchers found the ancient charred remains of Hypoxis angustifolia, meaning that people were already cooking rhizomes about 170,000 years ago. A striking find that gives us a fascinating insight into the habits of early modern humans in southern Africa.