A comfy bed to sleep in at night and a stocked workspace to get stuff done during the day are usually considered hallmarks of modern life. Now, however, a groundbreaking discovery in South Africa is providing fascinating evidence that early humans were creating personal areas for sleep and work at least 200,000 years ago!
Of course, while nowadays our beds and desks are made of wood, steel, and cotton, our ancestors made use of what was readily available to them at the time: grass.
Sheaves of grass, meaning groups of grass stems bound together, were placed on top of ash layers to create some of the earliest beds known to mankind. The grass provided a comfortable place to rest, and the ash acted as a buffer zone that blocked insects from bothering people as they snoozed.
“We speculate that laying grass bedding on ash was a deliberate strategy, not only to create a dirt-free, insulated base for the bedding but also to repel crawling insects,” says lead study author and principal investigator professor Lyn Wadley in a university release.
Moreover, further evidence was uncovered suggesting those grassy surfaces were also used as work areas during the day.
“We know that people worked as well as slept on the grass surface because the debris from stone tool manufacture is mixed with the grass remains. Also, many tiny, rounded grains of red and orange ochre were found in the bedding where they may have rubbed off human skin or colored objects,” professor Wadley adds.
So, it seems our early prehistoric ancestors were “working from home” a long, long time before COVID-19 forced so many people around the world to work within proximity of their bedroom.
These incredible discoveries were made within South Africa’s Border Cave, a famous archaeological site resting on a cliff between the nation of Swaziland and the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. This project was a collaboration between researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, the University of Bordeaux, and Université Côte d’Azur in France, the Instituto Superior de Estudios Sociales in Argentina, and the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Belgium.
By now, the only remaining traces of these ancient beds and desks were fossilized fragments of grass. But that’s all the research team needed thanks to modern chemical characterization techniques and magnification technology.
It’s hard to imagine hygiene being a top priority for prehistoric humans, but researchers say there’s even evidence that the grassy surfaces were periodically swapped out to maintain a certain level of cleanliness.
“Sometimes the ashy foundation of the bedding was a remnant of older grass bedding that had been burned to clean the cave and destroy pests. On other occasions, wood ash from fireplaces was also used as the clean surface for a new bedding layer.”
Besides all of that, Border Cave also boasts evidence of some of the earliest use of fire among humans.
“Our research shows that before 200 000 years ago, close to the origin of our species, people could produce fire at will, and they used fire, ash, and medicinal plants to maintain clean, pest-free camps. Such strategies would have had health benefits that advantaged these early communities,” professor Wadley says.
Some people believe that humans were never meant for civilized life spent inside buildings and behind desks. These archeological discoveries, though, make a strong case that people have always appreciated a roof over their head, a place to keep warm and rest, and even a small area to get work done.
The full study can be found here, published in Science.