Earliest human beds in South African archaeological site

A team working in South Africa claims to have found the earliest known sleeping mats, made of plant material and dated up to 77,000 years ago — 50,000 years earlier than previous evidence for human bedding. These early mattresses apparently were even specially prepared to be resistant to mosquitoes and other insects.

Early members of our species, Homo sapiens, were nomads who made their living by hunting and gathering. Yet they often created temporary base camps where they cooked food and spent the night. One of the best studied of these camps is Sibudu Cave, a rock shelter in a cliff face above South Africa’s Tongati River, about 40 kilometers north of Durban. Sibudu was first occupied by modern humans at least 77,000 years ago and continued to serve as a favored gathering place over the following 40,000 years. Since 1998, a team led by Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, has been excavating at Sibudu, uncovering evidence for complex behaviors, including the earliest known use of bows and arrows.

Over the past several years, the team has found that many of the archaeological layers featured large, 1-centimeter thick swaths of plant remains, including the remnants of both stems and leaves. Most of them cover at least three square meters. The team suspected that these swaths were the remains of bedding, but the earliest previous evidence for sleeping mats is only between 20,000 and 30,000 years old, at sites in Spain, South Africa, and Israel, where similar but more fragmentary arrangements of plant remains have been found…

The team found that the swaths, which dated from 77,000 to 58,000 years ago, were made from sedges, rushes, and grasses, plants that grow down by the Tongati River but are not found in the dry rock shelter. Thus the people at Sibudu must have gathered them deliberately and brought them to the cave. Under the microscope, blocks of the plant material showed signs of compression and repeated trampling. In the earliest layer, 77,000 years old, the team found the leaves of Cryptocarya woodii, also known as Cape laurel, or the “bastard camphor tree,” an aromatic plant whose leaves are used in traditional medicines even today. The leaves contain several chemical compounds that can kill insects, and the team suggests that early humans chose them to protect against malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other pests…

Among the plant remains, Wadley’s team also found tiny fragments of chipped stone and crushed, burnt bone, which the researchers interpret as evidence that these were not only sleeping mats but also work surfaces where tools were fashioned and food was prepared. Thus while early modern humans were skilled at organizing their living spaces, some parts of the cave served double duty, Wadley says. “There were no rules for separate eating, working, or sleeping places,” she says. “Breakfast in bed may have been an almost daily occurrence.”

AAAS articles are almost always informative, useful, educational. Sometimes the effort to be entertaining can be pretty corny. 🙂

Among the various substances and structures they examined at microscopic level I wonder what remains of insects associated with humans may have been found? Like fossilized Cimex lectularius?