Sibudu is a rock shelter on a cliff beside the Uthongathi river north of Durban, South Africa

Archaeologists digging in the soil on this platform discover how humans lived from 80000 years ago

Oldest Bed in the World

Cryptocarya woodii, the aromatic leaves

How did people sit and lie down on the rocky floor of this shelter ?  They cut sedge plants which grew nearby and spread them on the floor.  This type of sedge still grows in this region, and local Zulu people weave it into mats. Sibudu people mixed with it some aromatic leaves of the cryptocarya woodii tree which is potent against insects – mosquitoes, lice, bed bugs – these ancient inhabitants did not want these pests invading their comfy bedding ! This shows how cleverly they used their knowledge of plants to make their lives more comfortable.

But as they ate, worked and slept on the same bedding, it must have got quite dirty over time. Hygiene was easy: they simply burnt the bedding and went out to gather more sedge and leaves !The layers of burnt bedding can be seen clearly in the soil strata as the archaeologists dig down. The oldest is from 77000 years ago, which makes this bed(ding) the oldest ever found in the WORLD

Stone Blades

Even the great Southern Apes, ancestors of humans, could use big stones to crack a nut.  Early humanoids  (homo erectus, homo habilis) started to shape big stones into axe-heads and spear points, in the Oldowan and Acheulian cultures. By the time of the Middle Stone Age homo sapiens had learnt to hit chips off a stone core in such a way as to make useful cutting blades, some curved and some straight. These could be hand-held, or perhaps hafted to thick sticks, and used much in the way we use kitchen knives for food preparation. They were also probably used for butchery after these hunters caught an animal for food, and for scraping skins to prepare them for leather clothing, blankets and thongs.

Shell Beads

Shells have been found, with regular holes pierced in them, to be able to string them on plant twine, or leather thongs. These shells, from some tiny marine shells called afra littorina, come from the rocky places at the local seas-shore. If these ancient people were using body ornaments, this shows that they were evolving a culture.  No other animal is able to make body adornment , but the fact that these early humans did so showed they were able to visualise how they looked to other people, a crucial stage in the development of human consciousness. Possibly they even went to the river to admire their reflections ! We don’t know how their culture used bead ornaments, whether for status, family identity, gift-exchange or what.  But scientists say that if humans could make such symbolic ornaments they must have had language too .

Hafting and Glue

View from top showing Sibudu excavation, and on the right replicas of blade hafting

These sharp points were hafted on to the end of the stick of the arrow by using glue from the acacia tree.  Glue needs to be mixed and applied according to the purpose of the crafter.  Some glue can be mixed with sand.  Some glue can be dried more quickly, and some slowly.  All these choices show that these early crafters were getting to grips with chemistry early on !

Red Ochre

Red ochre is still used traditionally in Southern Africa

Lots of red ochre has also been found in the early strata. This is clay which is red because of its iron content. Local people still use clay (usually white) to protect their faces from the sun. In the Transkei, the “red” villages  (in contrast with the Christian villages) use red ochre as body paint. Red colour was also much used by the San artists in ancient rock paintings. We do not know exactly how these more ancient Sibudu people used red ochre, but the fact that so much of it has been found means that it had important symbolic use in their culture. 

Red Beads from India

These were found near the top of the diggings, in a strata from only 500 years ago, so just before white people arrived off these shores. These particular red beads come from India ! They were found in lines, as if they had been in strings. Alongside were also blue-green copper beads, which  must have come from far away as there is no local source of copper.  In this era, local people, mostly Bantu tribes, lived in villages, as they were farmers and herders, rather than hunter-gatherers like the early Sibudu dwellers. The rock shelter was probably used by someone such as a sangoma, a traditional healer or prophet,who was respected and given these beads for services rendered. The fact that these beads came from so far away shows how far trade links stretched in this pre-colonial period

Changing Ecology

The scientists are sifting the soil carefully in each strata. They can identify from the bones what birds and animals lived near this rock, and from even burnt earth, what plants were brought there.  Because the strata have not been disturbed through the millennia, they provide  a climate record, showing which periods were dryer and producing a savannah-type of ecology with grasslands, and which periods were wetter with forest vegetation and animals.


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