Researchers in South Africa’s Border Cave, a well-known archeological site perched on a cliff between eSwatini (Swaziland) and KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, have found evidence that people have been using grass bedding to create comfortable areas for sleeping and working on at least 200,000 years ago.
These beds, consisting of sheaves of grass of the broad-leafed Panicoideae subfamily were placed near the back of the cave on ash layers. The layers of ash was used to protect the people against crawling insects while sleeping. Today, the bedding layers are visually ephemeral traces of silicified grass, but they can be identified using high magnification and chemical characterisation.
Several cultures have used ash as an insect repellent because insects cannot easily move through fine powder. Ash blocks insects’ breathing and biting apparatus, and eventually dehydrates them. Tarchonanthus (camphor bush) remains were identified on the top of the grass from the oldest bedding in the cave. This plant is still used to deter insects in rural parts of East Africa.
Modern hunter-gatherer camps have fires as focal points; people regularly sleep alongside them and perform domestic tasks in social contexts. People at Border Cave also lit fires regularly, as seen by stacked fireplaces throughout the sequence dated between about 200,000 and 38,000 years ago.
Although hunter-gatherers tend to be mobile and seldom stay in one place for more than a few weeks, cleansing camps had the potential to extend potential occupancy.
References: Fire and grass-bedding construction 200 thousand years ago at Border Cave, South Africa. Science, 2020. DOI: 10.1126/science.abc7239 link: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6505/863