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Fire and grass-bedding construction 200 thousand years ago at Border Cave, South Africa

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Science  14 Aug 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6505, pp. 863-866
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc7239

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Bedding of grass and ashes

The Border Cave site in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa has been a rich source of archaeological knowledge about Stone Age humans because of its well-preserved stratigraphic record. Wadley et al. now report the discovery of grass bedding in Border Cave, dated to approximately 200,000 years ago. The bedding, identified with a range of microscopic and spectroscopic techniques, was mingled with layers of ash. It also incorporated debris from lithics, burned bone, and rounded ochre grains, all of which were of clear anthropogenic origin. The authors speculate that the ash may have been deliberately used in bedding to inhibit the movement of ticks and other arthropod irritants. These discoveries extend the record of deliberate construction of plant bedding by at least 100,000 years.

Science, this issue p. 863

Abstract

Early plant use is seldom described in the archaeological record because of poor preservation. We report the discovery of grass bedding used to create comfortable areas for sleeping and working by people who lived in Border Cave at least 200,000 years ago. Sheaves of grass belonging to the broad-leafed Panicoideae subfamily were placed near the back of the cave on ash layers that were often remnants of bedding burned for site maintenance. This strategy is one forerunner of more-complex behavior that is archaeologically discernible from ~100,000 years ago.

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