Cave camp bedding in Lebombo, South Africa

The Border Cave is a deep gash in a cliff face, high in the Lebombo Mountains of South Africa. Sheltered from the elements, the spot has yielded bones, tools, and preserved plant material that paint a detailed picture of the lives of human inhabitants for more than 200,000 years. Now, there’s a new sketch emerging: Plant remains point to evidence that the cave’s occupants used grass bedding about 200,000 years ago. Researchers speculated that the cave’s occupants laid their bedding on ash to repel insects.

World's Oldest Bedding Found in SA Cave in Lebombo Mountains


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Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, made the discovery and noticed white flecks in the brown earth of the sediment as she was digging.    She later identified under microscope that the plant matter as belonging to the Panicoideae family of grasses that grows in the area.   The sediment showed repeating layers of plant and ash.  Ash, as well as burnt grass, wood, and bone, suggested the cave’s inhabitants may have periodically burned the bedding, possibly to rid the site of smelly bedding and pests.   Some of that burned wood came from the broad-leaved camphor bush, a species still used as an insect repellent in South Africa.  Plenty of other animal species, including birds, rodents, and other primates make nests. But material discovered alongside the grass does hint at more elaborate behaviors. 

Researchers have dated two isolated teeth found within the same layer to about 200,000 years ago by measuring how much radiation the tooth enamel had been exposed to. The date ranges for the two teeth are broad, with one slightly older than 200,000, and the other slightly younger.

If the dates hold up, the Border Cave beds would be the earliest evidence of humans using camp bedding. The second oldest known plant bedding, in South Africa’s Sibudu Cave, has been dated to 77,000 years ago, although there is tentative evidence of beddinglike plant layering from about 185,000 years ago in Israel.

People around the world, including in present-day Cameroon, have long used various kinds of ash to repel and kill insects by blocking their breathing and biting apparatus. The evidence in Border Cave suggest humans deliberately used ash and medicinal plants to keep their camps clean and pest-free, Wadley and her colleagues report today in Science.     However, “It’s very difficult to prove this,” says Dan Cabanes, a microarchaeologist at Rutgers University, New Brunswick: “You can’t ask these people.”

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/world-s-oldest-camp-bedding-found-south-african-cave

World's oldest camp bedding found in South African cave | Science | AAAS

https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6505/863/tab-figures-data

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“Border Cave” is ‘n natuurlike oorhangende rotsskuiling in ‘n beskutte kransgebied, hoog in die Lebombo-berge, Kwazulu-Natal van  Suid-Afrika geleë.   Die oorhang wat beslis skuiling gebied het in die verre verlede.

Die plek is redelik beskut met natuurlike plantegroei teen die elemente en lewer insiggewende inligting soos bene, gereedskap en oerbewaarde plantmateriaal op wat ‘n diepere beeld van die lewens van menslike inwoners vir moontlik meer as 200 000 jaar skets.

Die plantreste dui daarop dat die oeroue bewoners van die grot grasbeddegoed saam met as, gebruik het om insekte af te weer.   Moontlik omdat die plek nie altyd bewoon was nie, maar slegs as ‘n oornagpunt gebruik is vir jagdoeleindes.   Dis ook moontlik bewys dat inwoners vir jare las het van insekte wat van as gebruik gemaak het  om ontslae te raak van die lasposte.   As kan vir heelwat dinge aangewend word vandag.

Tydens die navorsingswerk is daar chemiese ontledings  gedoen op sekere houtstokke wat met insnydings versier is.   Dit kom voor dat dit ooreenstem en basies dieselfde is en wat  vir dieselfde doel gebruik is deur die San om ‘n gif wat ricinoleïensuur bevat, op te hou en te dra.   Dit is die vroegste bewys vir die gebruik van gif.

Byewas, gemeng met die hars van giftige Euphorbia plant en moontlik met eier gemeng, is in plantvesels toegedraai wat van die binneste bas van ‘n houtagtige plant gemaak is.   Hierdie komplekse verbinding wat gebruik word om pylpunte of gereedskap te gebruik, is direk gedateer op 40 000 jaar gelede, en is die oudste bewys van die gebruik van byewas.   Die Kamferboom word ook vermeld wat dus aandui dat die boom al vir eeue hier voorkom,     Of die tyd so lank terug is, sal die tyd leer oor meer navorsingswerk.

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It was also stated that the dating and analysis of archaeological material discovered at Border Cave in South Africa, has allowed researchers to demonstrate that many elements of material culture that characterise the lifestyle of nomadic San hunter-gatherers in southern Africa, were  part of the culture and technology of the inhabitants of this site 44,000 years ago.

Archaeological Cave in Africa : Border Cave - YouTube

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Their results have shown without a doubt that at around 44,000 years ago the people at Border Cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, like those traditionally used by the San people.   They adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and notched bones for notational purposes. They fashioned fine bone points for use as awls and poisoned arrowheads. One point is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, which closely parallels similar marks that San make to identify their arrowheads when hunting.

Chemical analysis of residues on a wooden stick decorated with incisions reveals that, like San objects used for the same purpose, it was used to hold and carry a poison containing ricinoleic acid found in castor beans. This represents the earliest evidence for the use of poison.    A lump of beeswax, mixed with the resin of toxic Euphorbia, and possibly egg, was wrapped in vegetal fibres made from the inner bark of a woody plant.    This complex compound used for hafting arrowheads or tools, directly dated to 40,000 years ago, is the oldest known evidence of the use of beeswax.

http://www.quantumday.com/2012/07/artifacts-found-at-border-cave-in-south.html

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Border Cave on the border of Kwa Zulu Natal and Swaziland has evidence of human habitation dating back 200 000 years, giving weight to the belief that Africa is the origin of man.

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The Border Cave, a rock shelter on the cliff face of the Lebombo Mountains in the far north-east of KwaZulu-Natal, offers a spectacular view 800m down into the plains of Swaziland, but that’s not the best reason to visit it.

An almost complete skeleton of a child was found among the fossils unearthed – it dates back almost 82 000 years – as well as the remains of five adult hominins in excess of 66 000 years old.

For some time now scientists have pondered the question of when human cultures similar to ours emerged. Until the Border Cave findings were made, archaeologists believed that the oldest evidence of the San Bushman hunter-gatherer culture in southern Africa dated back 20 000 years ago.

Of significance is the fact that the child was buried in a ritual way, covered in ochre. Although the exact meaning of the ochre is not known, it indicates that 82 000 years ago humans were engaging in symbolic cultural practices.

The findings also reveal that 44 000 years ago the inhabitants of the cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, they wore ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and used notched bones for notational purposes. In addition, they shaped bone points for use as awls – pointed bones for leather working – and poisoned arrowheads, just as modern Bushmen do today.

One arrowhead is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, for easy identification by the owner. A mixture of beeswax, tree resin, and possibly egg, wrapped in vegetable fibres, may have been used for attaching bone points or stone tools to the shaft. A wooden poison applicator retains residues of ricinoleic acid, derived from poisonous castor beans.

The child skeleton is stored in the Wits Medical School archives in Johannesburg. The other Border Cave artefacts are stored at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

This research was conducted by an international team which included Wits University researchers Lucinda Backwell and Prof Marion Bamford, and was led by Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France.

“The findings at Border Cave show the oldest human behaviour as we know it,” says Backwell, a senior researcher at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research.

Backwell was involved in research in 2012 on organic material found at the site, in particular bone arrowheads, ostrich eggshell beads, engraved bones, bored stones, and digging sticks. These artefacts belonged to people who lived in the area, and many of the items are still largely used by Bushmen in Botswana and Namibia, living a traditional lifestyle, hunting and gathering, with their language intact.

These artefacts also reveal the shift from the Middle Stone Age to the beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa some 56 000 years back, a process that began by “internal evolution”. This shift involved the disappearance of stone spear points in favour of the bow and arrow, and new forms of personal ornaments and gathering equipment.

The cave is several kilometres from the small town of Igwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal. It is reached by a rough dirt road and is some 100m below the mountain top, with a 800m drop into Swaziland. The cave is semi-circular, about 40m across and 15m deep.

Together with the Wonderwerk Cave, Klasies River and other sites, Border Cave is on the Unesco World Heritage tentative list.

It was discovered in 1940 when WE Barton came from Swaziland to collect bat guano to use as fertilizer. His excavations brought several human bone fragments to light – they were examined by renowned paleoanthropologist Prof Raymond Dart. He had originally visited the cave in mid-1934 but a superficial examination revealed nothing.

In 1941 and ’42 a team sponsored by Wits University conducted a more thorough survey. Then again in the 1970s researcher Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley uncovered rich rewards – besides the infant and five hominins, more than 69 000 artefacts and the remains of more than 43 mammal species, three of which are extinct, were recovered.

Also uncovered was the Lebombo Bone, the oldest known artefact containing a counting system, dating to 39 000 years ago. It is a small piece of baboon fibula incised with 29 notches, believed to be similar to the calendar sticks used by modern Bushmen. It’s older than the Ishango Bone, discovered in Central Africa and thought to be around 20 000 years old.

Animal bone fragments revealed the diet of the Border cave people – bushpig, warthog, zebra and buffalo.

Ancient culture from the Border Cave

Early evidence of San material culture, organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa

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Border cave and camp bedding

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Border cave

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