The Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal. Photo: Veerle Rots
  • Grass and ash bedding, dated to at least 200,000 years old, has been found at an archaeological site in KwaZulu-Natal.
  • South Africa is a hotbed of evidence of complex early human behaviour – from cooking tubers to making insect-repelling bedding. Before this discovery, the oldest known bedding was 77,000 years old and came from the Sibudu Cave, also in KwaZulu-Natal.
  • Remnants of ochre and stone flakes show that these cave people also worked on the bedding.
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In 2010, archaeologist Lyn Wadley discovered layers of sedge leaves interspersed with medicinal herbs in Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal. They were 77,000 years old and showed that early humans had purposefully made insect-repelling bedding areas for themselves.

And that is why Wadley recognised the latest find immediately when she and colleagues began excavating in Border Cave in the Lebombo mountains of KwaZulu-Natal. “The bedding there was better preserved, but it was the same kind of thing and as soon as I saw this similar occurrence in Border [Cave], I knew that this was it,” explains Wadley, an honorary professor of archaeology at Wits University.

The research team dated the broad-leafed floor coverings, mixed with ash, to more than 200,000 years ago, making it the oldest instance of humans intentionally laying down grass bedding. 

South Africa is a hotbed of early human innovation, and its archaeological finds detail the emergence and evolution of modern behaviour. About 120,000 years ago, humans in Klasies River were cooking and eating tubers, while inhabitants of Blombos Cave in the southern Cape strung shells as beads about 75,000 years ago.

The 200,000-year-old bedding is a forerunner of the more complex behaviour that is evident from about 100,000 years ago, Wadley and colleagues write in their Science paper, which was published on Thursday.

“There’s a greater realisation in archaeology that the most information about life-ways of people is not obtained by glitzy stuff like golden flutes or a hominin cranium, but humble things like plants which are such big parts of people’s lives,” Wadley says.

The bedding in Border Cave contained the remnants of the Panicoideae subfamily of grasses as well as charcoal from the broad-leafed camphor bush, which has aromatic leaves. Researchers also found evidence that the cave inhabitants occasionally burned the beds before building new ones on top of the ash. This ash could have repelled crawling insects from burrowing into the bedding.

However, if Wadley had not noticed similarities with the Sibudu Cave, the Border Cave bedding may have been overlooked entirely – as has probably been the case at other sites, says Wadley.

Dan Cabanes, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in the United States, welcomed the “excellent” research.” “The preservation of these remains in border cave is unique. This also raises another question. How much are we missing?” he asks. How many sites and how much information “have [we] lost because we dug through them without the faintest idea of rich information contained in the sediments”? 

“What we are looking at [at] Border cave is a very intimate moment in the daily life of our ancestors 200,000 years ago,” he says. “A moment when these people came back to their camp after hunting and gathering, to meet and socialize, to talk about what they had seen, and to make plans for the next day.”

Wadley is careful to note that although they refer to the ground covering as bedding, “we think they used it as a clean surface for working on.” The sand in the cave is fairly “grubby” and the grass covering would have provided a clean surface. It’s likely they were eating, working, and sleeping on these areas and lighting fires close by to stay warm and keep predators away, she says.

“It was a forensic study, using tiny little things to make up a big story about lifewear [in the cave]”, she says.

There is still more to be discovered in the cave, as there are seeds, other plants, and the remains of wood, she says. “I think we need to take a close look at that as well, and there might be another exciting story coming out of that sort of thing.”


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