77 000 year old evidence for ancient beds and the use of medicinal plants

A piece of ancient bed alongside a five rand coin showing its size.

Evidence indicates the oldest bedding found in human history was made from sedge stems and leaves, was burnt regularly and served a dual purpose of chasing away mosquitoes.


The finding is embedded in the 77 000 year-old preserved plant bedding found in a rock-shelter in South Africa by an international team of archaeologists. This discovery is 50,000 years older than earlier reports of preserved bedding.

The team, led by Professor Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in collaboration with Christopher Miller (University of Tübingen, Germany), Christine Sievers and Marion Bamford (University of the Witwatersrand), and Paul Goldberg and Francesco Berna (Boston University, USA), reported the discovery in the scientific journal Science, of 9 December 2011.

The ancient bedding was uncovered during excavations at Sibudu rock shelter KwaZulu-Natal province, where Lyn Wadley, honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, has been digging since 1998. At least 15 different layers at the site contain plant bedding, dated between 77,000 and 38,000 years ago. The bedding consists of centimetre-thick layers of compacted stems and leaves of sedges and rushes, extending over at least one square metre and up to three square metres of the excavated area.

The oldest evidence for bedding at the site is particularly well-preserved, and consists of a layer of fossilised sedge stems and leaves, overlain by a tissue-paper-thin layer of leaves, identified by botanist Marion Bamford as belonging to Cryptocarya woodii, or River Wild-quince. The leaves of this tree contain chemicals that are insecticidal, and would be suitable for repelling mosquitoes.

"The inhabitants would have collected the sedges and rushes from along the uThongathi River, located directly below the site, and laid the plants on the floor of the shelter. The bedding was not just used for sleeping, but would have provided a comfortable surface for living and working," adds Wadley. Microscopic analysis of the bedding, conducted by Christopher Miller, junior-professor for geoarchaeology at the University of Tübingen, suggests that the inhabitants repeatedly refurbished the bedding during the course of occupation.

The microscopic analysis also demonstrated that after 73,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Sibudu regularly burned the bedding after use, possibly as a way to remove pests.

According to the site, physorg.com, Wadley believes the discovery is particularly well timed, since future work at the site may be in jeopardy. "Local officials plan to construct a large housing tract near the Sibudu rock shelter that Wadley says would irreparably damage the site and prevent future excavation. She and her colleagues hope this discovery will emphasize the importance of Sibudu as an irreplaceable cultural resource for South Africa and the rest of the world."



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