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Fred Flintstone's bed uncovered

Sun, 11th Dec 2011

Chris Smith

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Writing in this week's Science, University of Witwatersrand palaeontologist Professor Lyn Wadley and her colleagues describe an excavation they have carried out in a cave site called Sibudu in South Africa's KwaZulu Natal Province.

Dating from 77,000 years ago, the team have uncovered successive layers of sedge, and other plant materials including grasses, arranged on the floor of the cave and covering an area between 1 and three metres across. Also within the oldest deposits are thin layers of leaves from the Cryptocarya woodii - also known as the Cape Laurel - tree.

Trees of this species are well known to practitioners of traditional medicine, and chemical analysis of the leaves has confirmed that they contain a range of insecticidal compounds, including alpha-pyrones.

A mosquitoIt's likely, therefore, that the ancient middle stone age inhabitants of this shelter were aware of the beneficial mosquito-repelling qualities of these leaves and protected themselves by using them within their bedding.

Moreover, these early humans were also pioneers of infection control, it seems, because from about 73,000 years ago there's evidence in the cave that, rather than make their beds, the inhabitants regularly burned them. This would have had the effect of helping to rid the environment of parasites and other insect pests.

The finding is extremely important because, whilst there is robust evidence of the activities of stone age peoples out in the field, their domestic arrangements were much less well understood. Maybe they even pre-empted the inability of the teenager to make a bed, which is partly why they torched theirs...



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Bedrock of course. Bored chemist, Sun, 11th Dec 2011


They may have chosen to keep green boughs for the mattress, which would mean periodically harvesting new ones, and what better place to put the old boughs than in the fire.

It would seem that there would also be some kind of blankets such as evidence of animal furs and leather.  However, perhaps it would not be necessary in South Africa. CliffordK, Sun, 11th Dec 2011

No, well, see, Fred and Wilma actually lived in Bedrock City. Geezer, Mon, 12th Dec 2011

No, well, see, Fred and Wilma actually lived in Bedrock City.

Close, they were from the "Town of Bedrock" according to the theme song.
But that's not the point. Plenty of people live in the towns of Slumberland and Silentnight. Bored chemist, Mon, 12th Dec 2011

I live near the site, it can get cold in winter, enough that you will want some sort of blanket, either dry grasses or hides. SeanB, Mon, 12th Dec 2011

what if Wilma was so fat she couldnt rise & Fred kept feeding her cause he loved her so............from the beginnings CZARCAR, Thu, 15th Dec 2011

It certainly seems reasonable that our ancestors would have the need for bedding. A cave floor is far from a comfortable place to sleep without some sort of cushioning and insulation against a hard cold surface. Not that I speak from experience, I hasten to add.

Reuse of the same bedding, over time would render the materials unfit for purpose. As they dry out, so they would become less insulating and uncomfortable and, as Professor Lyn Wadley suggests, the bedding would also become infested.

So, if a group, say 10 individuals, were gathering fresh bedding regularly, might this be an additional reason for our prehistoric ancestors to have been nomadic? After a period of time, and a lot of fresh bedding, even a small group might devastate the near by fauna. This could be an additional factor in the need to move on to where there was ample supply of fresh bedding, rather than travel over long distances to gather their requirements and carry it back to the cave.

Of course there are factors which might make the use of fresh bedding undesirable. Fresh grasses, moss, sedge and other leaves would contain a higher water levels than those which had been used a few times, making the fresh bed damp. Not only more attractive to potential parasites, but also to fungal growth, which could have an effect on the sleepers airway. Also, sleeping on a damp bed is not such a good idea. Perhaps a contributory factor in our ancestor’s short lifespan.

The cold and perhaps damp nature of a cave floor would seem to me to have been quite a draw back to sleeping in caves, but the protection from rain and predators might well have out weighed the draw backs. Having discovered that leaf matter offered some solution to the problems, how long might it have been before raising the bed from the cave floor on a wooden platform supported by legs (a prehistoric 'bedstead') might have become normal practice? And, how long might that 'bedstead' have been used before it, along with the bedding, was destroyed and replaced?
Don_1, Tue, 20th Dec 2011

77.000 year old beds are very futuristic from Fred'n'Wilma's point of view Nizzle, Thu, 22nd Dec 2011

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