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Grass Mattress Was A Stone Age Bed And Breakfast

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In archaeology, you get special bragging rights when you can lay claim to the oldest specimen of something.

Scientists in South Africa may now qualify for what they say is the world's oldest bed. Well, not a bed exactly, but more like a mattress made of grass.

What Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the University of Witswatersrand, found were mats of grass and sedge piled half an inch thick on the floor of a cavelike rock shelter in South Africa.

The oldest bedding is 77,000 years old. That's about 40,000 years older than the previous record for bedding. It was found in a place called Sibudu.

"We know that these were used by people very deliberately, because in amongst them were stone tools and little fragments of burnt bone," says Wadley. "People were having breakfast in bed."

A Stone Age bed and breakfast sounds rather cushy, but if you've ever lived in a cave, you know how hard it is to keep clean: Insects, for example, are a real problem.

So what these people did was lay leaves from a certain tree, the river wild quince, on top of the grass bedding. "Those leaves contain chemicals that repel insects," Wadley explains. Indigenous groups in Africa, in fact, still use these leaves for that purpose.

Mosquitoes would've been a problem at the rock shelter, since it's near a river. Birds roosted there, and they're full of lice. Even with the leafy insecticide, the place eventually would have gotten pretty infested. Just ask archaeologist (and occasional cave-dweller) John Shea from Stony Brook University.

"Caves are just disgusting places," he says. "We shelter up in caves when we do field work in Eritrea and Israel and Africa. These are places where you get bugs, you get rot."

What hunter-gatherers normally did when their crib got too disgusting was just abandon it and find another. But not at Sidubu. When Wadley and her team dug down into the dirt, they found layers and layers of bedding — burned bedding. Apparently, when the bedding got nasty, the residents burned it, then made more and stayed on, apparently for thousands of years at a time, in fact.

Shea says bedding this old doesn't surprise him. You don't need a Ph.D. to realize that sleeping on rock or dirt sucks the heat out of your body. "The interesting thing they've got," he says, "is they've got evidence for that medicinal plant use, that insecticide use. What that shows you is that these people are smart."

Smart enough to figure out which plants will give you a better night's sleep.

The research appears in the journal Science.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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