In a cave in South Africa, archaeologists discovered the layered remains of ancient mattresses from around 77,000 years ago—and if that isn’t interesting enough, it turns out modern humans aren’t the only ones concerned about bugs between the sheets! The ancient sleeping mat’s top layer was made with insect-repelling leaves that scientists believe were used to ward off mosquitos, flies, while also killing off lice.
This discovery from the Sibudu Cave site means the bedding is 50,000 years older than anything previously found at sites around the world. The compacted layers of bedding—accumulated over time during the site’s occupation—show that it was periodically burned, likely to prevent other pests and contamination from garbage or human excretions.
It’s also entirely possible that the insect-repelling plant layer represents the first known use of plants for medicinal purposes by early humans. The leaves of the tree species in the bedding, Cryptocarya woodii, excrete a chemical that repels insects.
Lyn Wadley, study leader from Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand, has said that “the mattresses would’ve been a very comfortable [and] long-lasting form of bedding. Hunter-gatherers tend to live with each other in kinship groups,” so it’s likely that the beds accommodated a whole family.
Although the ancient mattress layers only measured about 2 square meters (and 30cm high), it’s worth keeping in mind that ancient humans tended to be shorter and leaner than today’s average individual. Even if your family couldn’t fit on a space that small—and likely wouldn’t want to, considering the modern notion of “personal space” in Western society—that doesn’t mean humans who lived 77,000 years ago couldn’t sleep there or weren’t comfortable in such close quarters.
“The selection of these leaves for the construction of bedding suggests that the early inhabitants of Sibudu had an intimate knowledge of the plants surrounding the shelter, and were aware of their medicinal uses,” Wadley said. “Herbal medicines would have provided advantages for human health, and the use of insect-repelling plants adds a new dimension to our understanding of behavior 77,000 years ago.”
What were the rest of the mattress layers made of? Various collected grasses, sedges, and rushes… memory foam it wasn’t, but it sure beat sleeping on the cold ground!