Prehistoric people who lived in what today is South Africa discovered certain plants' medicinal properties and made bedding and mats from insect-repelling leaves, researchers said Friday.
An international team, led by Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, discovered several fossilised beds in a well-known rock shelter on a cliff in Sibudu in the eastern province of Kwazulu-Natal.
The evidence is believed to be 77,000 years old, pre-dating by 50,000 years previous discoveries of preserved bedding.
"Sibudu yielded the earliest evidence in the world for plant bedding and the use of medicinal plants," said team leader Lyn Wadley, whose results were published Friday in the journal Science.
The fossilised bedding evidence consists of a layer of sedge stems and leaves, topped with a thin layer of river wild-quince leaves, which contained insecticidal and mosquito-repelling chemicals.
"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 in a news release.
"I would go so far as saying it was the first primary health care."
Animal bones and tools mixed in with the bedding show it was also used as floor covering where people cooked and worked, Wadley said.
Microscopic analysis by Christopher Miller, a junior professor at the University of Tubingen in Germany, showed the bedding was regularly burned by cave occupants, probably to sanitise the site and kill any pests.
Sibudu has in recent years been home to several important finds, including decorative beads, bone points for hunting and evidence of bow-and-arrow technology and hunting snares.