Mastering sleep, the science of sleeping well, by Swami Subramaniam
Forty kilometers north of Durban South Africa, in the province of KwaZulu natal, flows the river tongati in an eastward direction towards the Arabian sea. This is the tongati river valley. Overseeing the valley is a rock shelter under a sandstone cliff approachable only after a steep climb. A natural redoubt guards the entry. The cave that opens into the rock face is the site of a remarkable archaeological find.
Over 70,000 years ago a tribe of our ancestors made this cave their home. Unlike other cave dwellings, the layout, a broad flat and protected expanse of floor measuring 150 feet by 80 feet and the location of these caves made them the preferred home for tribes of cave dwellers who kept returning to it over the next 40,000 years. The fondness of this site was was due to the river and the lush flora and fauna that thrived in its vicinity providing sustenance for cave dwellers. The natural architecture of the cave also offers a vast expanse of a flat floor protected from the elements by an arc of a high rock.
The caves have been a subject of archaeological investigations over three decades. We might imagine their primitive residents who upon returning to their caves with the falling of dusk might have flung themselves in a corner around a fire to spend the evening resting. A discovery in 2009 by a team led by Lyn Wadley, an archaeologist at the university of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, changed this view of ancient cave dwelling societies.
What was the discovery? It was the finding of what appeared to be remains of mattresses used by these cave dwellers. While the archaeological finds all pointed to a relatively high cognitive development, this finding in 2009 was the clue to an even more sophisticated cave culture than previously thought of
These bio-mattresses were made of plant material and were 30cm thick and about 3 metres squared. The plant matter had been systematically compressed by trampling to yield a springy and comfortable mattress on which to sleep. Intriguingly the plants chosen for this mattress had aromatic properties and contained chemicals that are still used in traditional medicine today.
They also contained insecticidal chemicals suggesting a well thought out design that acted to repel pests and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Taking this thought process a little further perhaps more out of whimsy than conviction, the archaeologists inferred pieces of bone in these mattresses as indicating multiple uses of the mattress, breakfast in bed perhaps?
If you were a romantic you may be led by your imagination to visualize something like this- As the flickering lights from the fire in the cave fade, the mother puts her children to bed on one of the mattresses. Meanwhile, she sneaks to the other side of the fire were, concealed in the darkness, she goes to rest on her mattress with her husband and nodding off to sleep.
A guard dog at the entrance keeps predators at bay and the chemical odor of the mattress keeps away the flying insects of the night. The cave dwellers enjoy sleep that is deep and refreshing, sleep that will help them strengthen their mental capabilities to prepare them for their daily battle of survival
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