The Border Cave site near the border between South Africa and Swaziland has been a rich source of archeological knowledge about Stone Age humans because of its remarkable and well-preserved stratigraphic (rock layers) record. Recently, a multidisciplinary team has found evidence that our human ancestors have been using grass beddings to create comfortable areas for sleeping and working dated to approximately 200,000 years ago.
200,000-year-old grass beds in South African cave
Their study, which appeared in the journal American Association for the Advancement of Science, the grass beddings were identified with a range of spectroscopic and microscopic techniques and were mixed with layers of ash. The researchers believe that the layers of ash were used to protect the people against crawling insects while they were sleeping. They wrote that early plant use is rarely described in the archeological record because of poor preservation.
Although the appearance of the bedding layers today are ephemeral traces, which means it will last only for a temporary period, they can still be identified using chemical characterization and high magnification.
Lyn Wadley from the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand and team describes that the beds comprise sheaves of grass of the Panicoideae subfamily. Other researchers are from the Nelson Mandela University, Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, Université Côte d'Azur, and the Instituto Superior de Estudios Sociales, among others.
Purpose of the ashy foundation in grass beddings
Professor Wadley, who is the lead author and principal researcher of the study, told Science Daily that they speculate that the layers of ash on grass bedding were a deliberate strategy not only to create a dirt-free base but to also repel insects. Sometimes, the layers of ash were even remnants of old bedding that had been intentionally burned to destroy pets and clean the cave. Then, on other occasions, they used wood ash from fireplaces to clean the surface and create a new bedding layer.
Ash has been used as an insect repellent in several cultures because insects cannot easily move through fine powder. To preserve seeds in large clay containers, a thick layer of ash has also been placed over them as it prevented insects from destroying the produce. It has also been found that ash blocks insects’ biting apparatus and breathing, eventually dehydrates them. The researchers added that they found remains of Tarchonanthus, a genus of flowering plants in the mutisia tribe daisy family, on top of the oldest grass bedding in the Border Cave.
Wadley and the team said they know the grass bedding has also been used for working and not just for sleeping because of the debris they found from the stone tool manufacture. The debris was mixed with the grass remains. Furthermore, many tiny, rounded grains of orange and red ochre were found in the grass bedding where our ancestors may have rubbed off-colored objects or human skin.
A clue that they produced fire at will
The team’s study also highlights that over 200,000 years ago, people could already produce fire at will and they used it together with medicinal plants and ash to maintain a pest-free and clean camp. These strategies could have had health benefits for such early communities.
Grasses come in a vast range of types and sizes, ranging from lawn grass to wheat, rice, bamboo, sugarcane, and corn. While they are usually considered valuable for their aesthetic qualities, there is so much more to these plants than beauty. In a brief analysis of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on pasture and fodder crops (cultivated primarily for animal feed), it says that grasslands are among the largest ecosystems in the world. They also contribute to the livelihoods of more than 800 million people. The estimated proportion of the earth’s land area that is covered by grasslands varies between 20 and 40%, depending on definition. The differences, FAO added, are due to lack of harmonization in the definition of grasslands. The world area of pasture and fodder crops is at 35,000,000 sq. km.
Fodder crops in South Africa
In South Africa, where the Border Cave is located, the fodder crop harvested area was at 250,000 hectares (ha) in 1980 and declined to 245,000 Ha in 1990 and eventually 220,000 Ha in 2000. In the Central inland plateau region, the dominant taxa are Themedatriandra and Eragrostis curvula, popularly known as the weeping love grass. In the dry western region, the dominant taxa are Eragrostis ehmanniana, E. obtusa , and Stipagrostisobtusa. There are other regions within the grassland biome, including the eastern inland plateau, eastern lowlands, and the eastern mountains and escarpment.
In August 2012, Francesco d’Errico from the Université de Bordeaux and team also conducted a reanalysis of the organic artifacts from the Border Cave. They found that the Early Later Stone Age inhabitants of the cave used notched bones for notational purposes. In semiotics and linguistics, a notation is a system of symbols or graphics and characters and abbreviated expressions to represent technical facts.
d’Errico and team added that said inhabitants of the Border Cave also used bone, bone awls, and wooden digging sticks. All these things point to those used by the San hunter-gatherer. The San people are also known as the Bushmen, which are members of various indigenous hunter-gatherer groups that are the first nations of Southern Africa.
Richard G. Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University, told the New York Times that the 2012 study by the Université de Bordeaux researchers supports his view that fully modern-hunter-gatherers emerged in Africa abruptly around 50,000 years ago. He is also convinced that the behavior shift or advance causes the successful expansion of modern Africans to Eurasia. Dr. Klein was not a part of either of the studies mentioned but was cited as the main editor of the main report by d’Errico.
Previous discoveries likewise reveal that other cave dwellers in South Africa were experimenting with bone and advanced stone tools, body adornment, and pigment use more than 75,000 years ago. However, many of these artifacts disappear by 60,000 years ago.
The findings of the University of the Witwatersrand researchers show that our human ancestors do know how to make pest-free and comfy beds.