Tens of thousands of years before scientists had realized, our ancestors in what is now South Africa were making their homes safer and more comfortable with grasses and leaves we still use today, researchers said in an article published Friday in the journal Science.
Lyn Wadley of Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, who led an international team of researchers, said mats believed used for bedding and work surfaces fit other findings that show modern man evolved in Africa.
The hunter gatherers she has been studying "were the ancestors of all of us," Wadley said in an interview. "They were modern humans."
Her fossilized evidence was found at an ancient cliff shelter known as Sibudu, near the western South African city of Durban, where Wadley has been working since 1998.
Some of the plants used had properties that repelled disease-carrying flies and mosquitoes, Wadley said. She said their use showed the Sibudu people were working to prevent disease, and that she expects to find evidence they also consumed the plants as medicines.
"Early use of herbal medicines may have awarded selective advantages to humans, and the use of such plants implies a new dimension to the behavior of early humans at this time," she and her colleagues wrote in the Science article.
Nick Barton, of Oxford's Institute of Archaeology, said work by Wadley and others in southern Africa and his own work in North Africa "is all sort of building up to present a very coherent picture" of how and where modern man evolved. Barton, who was not involved in Wadley's work, helped uncover some of the world's earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in Morocco.
Marlize Lombard, an anthropologist from the University of Johannesburg, has researched indications that ancient Sibudu people used bows and arrows, complex technology. She said the bedding Wadley found during unrelated research also was not simple, consisting of layers of grass and leaves.
The weapons and the bedding "show that people then already had very advanced ways of thinking about things, doing things," Lombard said.
Like people today, she said, they "did not always choose the simplest solutions."
Wadley said that while shell beads and other findings that indicate how early humans thought about themselves and their environment may be more glamorous, her bedding and evidence about how plants were processed to create it are a window on a community's day-to-day life.
The earliest mats are about 77,000 years old, around the time other research shows early Africans were using shell beads, engraving, and innovative stone technology. The mats are some 50,000 years older than other examples of plant bedding found in Spain, Israel and elsewhere in South Africa.
Mats are still woven from plant materials for bedding and work surfaces in South Africa. The cryptocarya plant the Sibudu people used is still used in traditional pain killers and other medicines, Wadley said. She said it's also the basis of some modern cancer treatments.
Wadley said the Sibudu people, who looked very much like today's humans, let their mats pile up over time, periodically burning them, perhaps to get rid of pests and clear space for new bedding.
For all their modern ways, she said, "nobody took the garbage out."