Earliest Human Bedding Didn't Let The Bed Bugs Bite
Thursday, December 8, 2011
After a hard day hunting and gathering, humans
77,000 years ago could count on a good night's mosquito-free sleep
on a comfy bed of grass and leaves. Archaeologists have discovered
the oldest evidence of humans using plant bedding, 50,000 years
before it appears anywhere else.
Many animals make beds for themselves, says lead
author Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand
in Johannesburg, South Africa, but what's interesting in the new
find is the way the owners managed their bedding. To keep it clean
and pest-free, they burned it.
Wadley's team has spent the past decade
excavating a rock shelter called Sibudu, situated high in a cliff
surrounded by forest and near the Uthongathi river in South Africa.
People lived there on and off between 80,000 and 38,000 years ago,
in a complex society that used stone tools and even madeglueand
Wadley found layers of plant material on the cave
floor that date from 77,000 years ago onwards - mostly grasses,
sedges and rushes. These could not have grown in the dry shelter,
so people probably collected them near the river.
BURNING THE BEDS
Wadley thinks the bedding was used to make a
clean area for sitting, working, eating and sleeping. Tools and
other artefacts were found buried within it.
Intriguingly, all the layers of bedding that are
73,000 years old or younger show signs of burning, which Wadley
suggests may have been the result of routine cleaning. Burning the
plants would have killed pests and diseases. That the cave's
occupants needed to do this, he says, may suggest they spent
extended periods of time in the shelter, so had to keep it
It seems the bed-makers were selective about the
plants they would sleep on. A range of trees grow in the region,
but only the Cape laurel (Cryptocarya woodii) was used.
Cape laurel leaves give off insecticidal
chemicals, so they would have repelled insects and their larvae -
including malarial mosquitoes. That would make the cave bedding the
earliest evidence of humans using medicinal plants, although other
animals have similar tricks: common
starlings oftenuse insecticidal plants in their nests to repel
The behaviours may have started sooner than this
site shows. "I would guess that right back until the earliest
anatomically modern humans, people would have known which plant to
choose," says Wadley.
Chimpanzees also build nests, and there is some evidence that
they too include insecticidal plants. Fiona Stewart of the University of Cambridge, UK,
spent several nights sleeping in chimp nests, and found that
insects bit her less than when she slept on the ground.
"Perhaps this purpose of bedding has been
continuous throughout human evolution," Stewart suggests.