Early Human Bedding More Than 200,000 Years Old Found in South Africa

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Fossilized grass fragments in Border Cave
Fossilized grass fragments in Border CaveCredit: Prof. Lyn Wadley
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Decades after primatologists reported that chimpanzees fashion comfortable nests to sleep in, researchers report on what looks like bedding over 200,000 years old made by early modern humans, suitably positioned for peaceful slumber in the rear of a South African cave.

There have been reports of postulated ancient bedding before, including in Israel, but this is the oldest so far.

The cave is high on a cliffside in the Lebombo Mountains on the border with eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland), and is fittingly known as Border Cave. The postulated bedding was made of broad-leafed grasses (since fossilized) that were layered with ash, an international team reported in Science last week.

Wondrously, Border Cave was occupied – albeit intermittently – for 226,000 years, until our modern time, the team estimates: from about 227,000 years ago to 1000 C.E.

Hearths and the postulated bedding were found throughout the Border Cave’s sequence until 35,000 years ago, reports the paper by Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, with colleagues from the CNRS of the University of Bordeaux and Côte d’Azur University in France, the Higher Institute of Social Studies, Tucumán, Argentina, and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, Belgium. 

Calling the mineralized, layered pile of leaves and ash “bedding” is an interpretation, but a plausible one if we consider that apes also recognize the advantages of comfort and build nests, as opposed to wedging themselves into a tree fork. Birds make nests too, among other animals, but they’re not our relatives.

The entrance to Border CaveCredit: A. Kruger
Border Cave in Lebombo MountainsCredit: A. Kruger

Who lived in Border Cave? Homo sapiens, says Prof. Wadley, the principal researcher and lead author, based on the human remains, including the burial of a baby, albeit from a later time – about 74 000 years ago – and also the remains of five adults over 66,000 years ago. The baby’s is one of the earliest known cases of modern human burial in Africa; it is also one of the earliest known cases of burial with grave goods of a sort: shells.

“Homo sapiens originated in Africa at least 300,000 years ago – so 227,000 years ago is Homo sapiens. We do know that Homo naledi was also in Africa at the same time but it hasn’t been found outside central South Africa, and naledi hasn’t been found with any cultural artifacts,” Wadley tells Haaretz.

There’s no question that the piled layers of ash and grass that built up over more than 200,000 years were deliberate manufacture, as it were, not the labor of some strangely obsessive animal. The pile is at the back of the cave with the hearth in front, which would have protected the sleepers from the wind and predators – always a good thing.

Smoking in bed

Why would the early humans of Border Cave have systematically placed the broad-leaved grasses above a layer of ash?

First of all, this ash seems to have come from deliberately burning stinky old bedding and from the nearby cave hearth.

It’s true that at least sometimes the beds may have burned by accident because of their proximity to the hearth. But the team thinks that accidental conflagration was rare because most of the reeds they found were desiccated, not burned.

Now, why might the ancients have deliberately layered their grasses with ash? “We speculate that laying grass bedding on ash was a deliberate strategy, not only to create a dirt-free, insulated base for the bedding, but also to repel crawling insects,” Wadley explains.

No question about it, fine ash dehydrates and suffocates ticks and other bugs crawling through it. The team postulates that the Border Cave denizens may knowingly have burned older bedding “to clean the cave and destroy pests.”

Excavating in Border CaveCredit: D. Stratford

The findings also imply that the cave inhabitants had control of fire.

Indications of fire exploitation go back at least 780,000 years in Israel, a million years in South Africa and possibly as much as 1.5 million years in Kenya, though those are believed to be remnants of serendipitous “fire harvesting” – helping oneself to a burning bush ignited by lightning, for instance. From possibly 400,000 years ago and in the present case, the archaeologists believe hominins – and later, the Border Cave dwellers – could initiate fire. Or as we laypeople would say, ignite it.

In fact, Wadley believes the Border Cave bedding with its layers of insect-repellant ash is a forerunner of more complex utilization of fire that archaeologists have identified at the famed Blombos Cave dating to about 70,000 years ago, and a few other early human sites in South Africa: namely, heating rocks before knapping them into stone tools. It’s significantly easier to knock flakes off a heated rock, Wadley points out. This practice has not been identified beyond South Africa, it bears adding.

Working in comfort

Could this bedding have served another purpose? It did, in fact: the grass matting was apparently not only used to sleep on comfortably, but also to work on. Within the mineralized grasses and ash, the archaeologists also found debris from the manufacture of stone tools, as well as bits of ocher. The colorful ocher could have been used to decorate their bodies or the tools – both are known in African prehistory going back at least 300,000 years.

It makes perfect sense. If you have a choice of parking your tush on a hard floor or a cushion while laboriously fashioning your stone tools, which would you choose?

The ocher found in the bedding isn’t like the ocher found naturally in the cave, supporting the assumption that it had been brought in, whether on the body or on tools, the team explains.

Wadley shares that the team discussed what to call this pile of grasses: bedding or matting. However, matting implies weaving, and woven, these grasses were not.

Floor matting in Misliya Cave?

The second oldest-known plant bedding, in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave, has been dated to 77,000 years ago. There is, however, tentative evidence of bedding-like plant layering from about 185,000 years ago in Israel – in the Misliya Cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel. That work, by researchers from the University of Haifa and the Weizmann Institute of Science, was published in 2012 in the journal of the Paleoanthropology Society.

Like Border Cave, at Misliya too the remains date to the Early Middle Paleolithic. The evidence indicates that Misliya was intensely occupied through to the Middle Paleolithic – from roughly 250,000 to 160,000 years ago. Today it seems like a rock shelter, but the archaeological exploration elucidated that it’s a large collapsed cavern, which contained tools, charred vegetal matter and animal bones with hallmarks of human consumption – and some bones of humans. A jawbone dated to between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago was found in Misliya in 2002, which seems to belong to Homo sapiens and upset the paradigm about the timeline of Homo sapiens’ evolution and exit from Africa

Misliya Cave in Israel, which may contain 185,000-year-old beddingCredit: Mina Weinstein Evron/ Haifa Univ

The point, however, is that the Misliya team led by Mina Evron also found partially charred matter in the center of the cave that they identified as wood ash, burnt bones and plant tissue. It could have been a mat, or bedding, they suggest, noting similarities to the postulated prehistoric bedding found at Sibudu and in Spain’s El Esquilleu Cave.

Interestingly, while the bedding in South Africa and Misliya seems to have been the product of early modern humans, the Spanish example of a repetitively existing bedding zone is associated with Neanderthals.

So, if apes and hominins made beds, how surprising is it actually to find that early humans did too? Putting aside the almost miraculous discovery of organic material that old, it’s not a huge surprise, says Prof. Dani Nadel of the University of Haifa, who wasn’t associated with the South African research.

Wadley agrees: “I think we will find it all over the world, wherever the organic preservation is good enough. It’s not a surprise to us,” she says. And so far, it happened to be good enough in a handful of sites in South Africa, Spain, and possibly in Israel too.

Access path to Border CaveCredit: Sievers

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