July 31, 2012
World's oldest mattresses discovered — in South Africa
No, not in your attic/basement/bedroom, contrary to what you thought.
Excerpts from a December 10, 2011 article in The Economist follow.
Setting up home in the modern world means acquiring some furniture — particularly a bed. And things were not so different 77,000 years ago, according to the latest research on the behaviour of early man in South Africa. Caves in that country have yielded a lot of discoveries about how Homo sapiens made the transition to modernity. That he liked to sleep on a comfortable mattress is the latest.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a study just published in Science by Lyn Wadley of the University of Witwatersrand and her colleagues. The bedroom in question is in a natural rock shelter called Sibudu, 40km (25 miles) north of Durban.
The most interesting layer is the oldest. It is this stratum that dates from 77,000 years ago. Among the things Dr Wadley's team found in it were sheets of plant matter several square metres in area, themselves divided into layers. The lower part of these layers, compressed to a thickness of about a centimetre, consists of sedges, rushes and grasses. The upper part, just under a millimetre thick, is made of leaves from Cryptocarya woodii, a tree whose foliage contains chemicals that kill insects.
These insecticidal leaves would have discouraged fleas and other biting arthropods — and possibly mosquitoes, too. Dr Wadley thus thinks that what she has found are mattresses on which the inhabitants of Sibudu slept.
The upshot is another piece of evidence of how, around this period, humans were creating a range of hitherto unknown artefacts. Adhesives, arrows, sewing needles, ochre-decorated pictograms and jewellery made from shells are all contemporary with Dr Wadley's finds. And stone tools became more delicate and sophisticated during this period. It was also a time when humanity went through several drastic shrinkages of population, which probably applied selective pressures that forced the pace of evolution. The origins of modern, consumer-good-loving humanity might thus be illuminated by this scene of ancient domestic bliss.
ScienceNOW offered a more in-depth piece on the early mattresses.
The abstract of the Science paper follows.
The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is associated with early behavioral innovations, expansions of modern humans within and out of Africa, and occasional population bottlenecks. Several innovations in the MSA are seen in an archaeological sequence in the rock shelter Sibudu (South Africa). At ~77,000 years ago, people constructed plant bedding from sedges and other monocotyledons topped with aromatic leaves containing insecticidal and larvicidal chemicals. Beginning at ~73,000 years ago, bedding was burned, presumably for site maintenance. By ~58,000 years ago, bedding construction, burning, and other forms of site use and maintenance intensified, suggesting that settlement strategies changed. Behavioral differences between ~77,000 and 58,000 years ago may coincide with population fluctuations in Africa.
[Illustration (also from The Economist) up top by Claudio Muñoz]
July 31, 2012 at 02:01 PM | Permalink
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