Fred Flintstone's bed uncovered

11 December 2011
Posted by Chris Smith.

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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