Archaeologists from South Africa have uncovered rudimentary beds that early humans made by placing bundles of grass onto a layer of ash. Sounds basic, but these Stone Age beds were more sophisticated than they appear at first glance.
“We report the discovery of grass bedding used to create comfortable areas for sleeping and working by people who lived in Border Cave at least 200,000 years ago,” declare the authors of a fascinating new study published today in Science.
Border Cave, a rock shelter located in the Lebombo Mountains near the border of South Africa and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), was occupied intermittently by humans from roughly 227,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago. The grass bedding found here is now the oldest in the archaeological record, the previous record being 77,000-year-old grass bedding from Sibudu, South Africa.
Butchered bones, stone tools, and cave paintings obviously provide a glimpse into Paleolithic existence, but there’s so much about Stone Age peoples we don’t know, including some of the more mundane aspects of daily life. Without the requisite evidence, however, archaeologists can’t jump to conclusions. Plant material doesn’t preserve well over vast timescales, highlighting the importance of the new evidence found at Border Cave.
This rock shelter is quite large, with interior portions well protected from the elements, allowing for the excellent preservation of organic materials hidden inside. Excavations at Border Cave from 2015 to 2019 revealed traces of “ephemeral fossilised grass,” in the words of Lyn Wadley, the lead author of the new study and a professor of archaeology at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
“The grass layer would have been quite thick — probably at least 30 centimetres thick — and laid on a soft, clean ash base, so it would have been as comfortable as any camp bed or haystack,” Wadley explained in an email.
It was on top of this grass bedding that Paleolithic humans slept, fashioned stone tools, and possibly even ground red and orange ochre, which they might have used to paint objects and even themselves. Though we can’t be certain, these grass beds were also probably used for, uh, more recreational purposes.
During excavations, Wadley’s team discovered a strange, thin layer embedded beneath the cave floor. Suspecting something important, the archaeologists cut out small chunks, wrapped them in a protective gypsum covering, and sent them to a lab for further analysis. There, the researchers analysed the samples with a scanning electron microscope and a spectrometer, while also conducting a phytolith analysis, in which plant materials are extracted from soil and sediment samples.
This work yielded evidence of bilobate leaf cells, prickles, stomata, and other grass structures. The plant material was identified as belonging to the Panicoideae family, which includes a grass known as Panicum maximum. Incredibly, this grass “grows profusely near the cave today,” said Wadley.
As the authors hypothesise in the study, the people who lived in Border Cave used bundles of this grass to produce bedding. Interestingly, the grass was placed atop layers of ash. This likely provided added comfort and a clean insulating surface, but as the authors point out in the study, the ash offered certain protection as well:
We speculate that such placement of bedding, as well as that on the ashes of previously burned bedding, was deliberate, because several ethnographies report that ash repels crawling insects, which cannot easily move through fine powder because it blocks their breathing and biting apparatus and eventually leaves them dehydrated.
That early humans regularly burned their grass beds piqued our curiosity, so we asked Wadley to explain this seemingly counterintuitive behaviour.
“Burning grass bedding rids the campsite of pests, from rats to fleas, and cleans fusty [stale] areas,” she explained. “Fresh grass would then be brought in to create new, clean beds, and it would then be possible to occupy the site for longer, otherwise it would have to be abandoned.”
Thankfully, this particular 200,000-year-old bedding was not burned, which suggests the site was abandoned and the bed not replenished after that particular occupation, she explained. Burnt layers found beneath this bed indicate the practice started very early. As for the ash, evidence collected at Border Cave suggests it was sourced both from burning beds and campfires.
The researchers also found traces of burned camphor wood. The smoke from this aromatic, medicinal plant is known to repel flying insects, and it may have been used for this purpose in Border Cave.
Interestingly, the researchers also found traces of stone flakes and blade manufacture in the bedding, as well as ground ochre particles. It thus appears that these grass beds, in addition to providing a comfortable place to sleep, were also a place to perform daily chores. It’s possible, of course, that ochre wasn’t processed on these beds and that the red and orange pigments fell from their skin as these humans were resting. Either way, it’s still a damn interesting observation.
When asked if these bundles of grass could have been used for something other than bedding, such as tinder in fires, Wadley said the grass was arranged in a deliberate manner, often over several meters, which suggests a desire to create clean surfaces for sleeping and working.
We also asked if these bundles of grass could have accumulated naturally, without human intervention.
“Birds make nests and some animals sleep on grass, so this is a good question,” said Wadley. “The bedding layers are towards the back of the cave, out of the wind and potentially safe from predators when fires are built in front of them. The cave is completely dry and nothing grows in it, so grass at the back of the cave was brought there; it could not grow in the interior of the cave.”
What’s more, the cave is on the edge of a cliff, making it unlikely for grass to blow inside, she said.
“The grass occurs in layers, and on the layers are stone tools, bones from meals, wood, that is, things that people would have used on clean surfaces that would have been working as well as sleeping areas,” Wadley said. “Next to the beds are small fireplaces that would have been for domestic use and keeping predators at bay. This sort of arrangement is a typical hunter-gatherer type of campsite.”
As Wadley also explained, this seemingly simple discovery of 200,000-year-old grass bedding has some very meaningful anthropological implications. It shows that early humans living at this time — some 100,000 years after the debut of Homo sapiens — were already using their big brains to solve problems and innovate, in what is a hallmark of our species. These humans also exhibited the capacity to create and use fire and to find uses for its byproducts, namely ash and medicinal smoke.
“Through the use of ash and medicinal plants to repel insects, we realise that they had some pharmacological knowledge,” she added. “Furthermore, they could extend their stay at favoured campsites by planning ahead and cleaning them through burning fusty beds. They therefore had some basic knowledge of health care through practicing hygiene.”
Clearly, getting rid of troublesome pests was a regular pastime for these Paleolithic humans. Not only that, it seems they got pretty good at it, finding innovative ways of keeping their dwellings free of creepy-crawlies. As this research shows, wanting and maintaining a comfy, well-kept bed is a timeless activity.