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The History Of Human Sleep – Evolution Explained

What did humans sleep on before beds? How long were their sleep sessions? Discover this and more in this guide on the history of human sleep.

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Do you know how your ancestors slept a century ago? Not only that sleeping habits evolved through time, but the way we sleep changed as well.

Have you ever noticed how, when you go camping, you tend to drift off before 10 PM, while when you are home watching TV or screening devices you can go to bed long past midnight – electricity plays a big role?

In fact, various discoveries through history created new habits in eating, exercising, eating, and even sleeping.

Here is how humans used to sleep before electricity and afterward.

Human Sleep

When it comes to sleep, Americans are in big trouble. Millions and millions of Americans, due to modern lifestyles and countless obligations, suffer from some type of insomnia.

People who suffer from lack of sleep, or insomnia, rest awake at night, unable to sleep.

Some people suffer from something called maintenance insomnia, which means that they can’t maintain a state of sleep.

They would wake up in the middle of the night and find that it takes them hours to fall back to bed. In most cases, this sleepless period creates stress and worry as a person thinks just how tired they will be the next day.

These wakeful periods in the middle of the night might be abnormal now, but in fact, they may not be abnormal after all.

In fact, when looking at the history of human sleep, documented evidence shows that from the beginning of time, human rest has always been divided into periods.

This practice is known as biphasic or segmented sleep, and for centuries it has been the most natural and healthy way to sleep.

History of Ancient Human Sleep

Throughout history, there have been many opinions on how people should sleep.

If you could go through various texts, articles, books, and so on, you would see that even in African and South American tribes, there is a common reference to ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep.

Anthropologists have found much evidence about bi-modal sleeping during preindustrial Europe. From that evidence, it’s easy to conclude that bi-modal sleeping was the norm.

Historian A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past describes households would retire a couple of hours after dusk, only to wake up a few hours later for a maximum of two hours, and then had a second sleep until dawn.

During this waking period, they would do stuff, like relaxing, being intimate, or doing anything else that keeps them in chill mode.

Some would engage in activities such as swing or chopping wood, while others would simply read.

An interesting fact is that during their waking time, they would rely merely on the light of the oil lamps or the moon. Now, let’s see how people really dealt with sleep from day one, until today.

Neolithic Era

The neolithic era refers to the period around 10,200 BCE when people lived very simply.

During this phase, people experienced the lack of a bright night sky and the threat of predators meant that people went to bed a couple of hours after dusk.

Compared to their ancestors from the Stone Age, Neolithic people did their best to make their bedtime space more habitable. They even used the heaps of straw as beds.

8,000 BCE

At this point, the technology continued progressing, but at a very slow rate.

Archeologists discovered something really interesting – ancient sleeping abodes that had circular form and had a shape more of nests than beds. This circular shape suggests that the fetal position was most preferred.

1300s – 1600s

These years stand for the middle ages. This is the period when sanitation became a major issue.

Even the wealthy lived in smelly and filthy places, and everyone lived in crowded areas without plumbing.

Simple said, horror. At the same time, some cultures started exploring more comfortable sleeping.

During this time bedframes were born with stuffed mattresses. Early materials that they used for stuffing were straw and down feathers.

Renaissance

In history, the renaissance is known as a progressive period when people change to good the world of art, culture, and society in general. This period is a unique revolution, where sleeping equipment took another level.

Straw mattresses and rough cloth were now covered with silk and velvet, which brought a pinch of luxury. During this time people also had a first and second resting period.

People were not disturbed by the fact that they were up in the middle of the night, and instead used that time for fun. It was common to visit friends around midnight, as well.

Industrial Revolution

This period is characterized by long working days and strict factory schedules. With so many working hours, people could enjoy two separate sleeping periods.

Instead, they decided to focus on sleeping into a single cycle. This practice is much more similar to what we have today.

19th Century

This is the period when people were introduced to public street light. The invention of electricity changed the way people lived. Electricity also changed how people slept.

Slowly but surely, people from urban areas shifted from a biphasic schedule.

People also started noticing the time. They also started looking at efficiency differently.

A new lifestyle was born and doctors started recommending a single sleeping session instead of two different periods.

By the 1920s all references to a biphasic or segmented schedule have entirely ceased.

People And Biphasic Sleep

Have you noticed just how better you sleep when you avoid screening devices at least two hours before sleep? In similar manners, people who lived without artificial light, naturally revert to a biphasic routine.

Scientists confirmed this by performing an experiment.

A psychologist, Thomas Wehr, restricted the light to his human subjects.

Subjects received 10 hours, followed by 14 hours of darkness. In a period of 4 weeks, the study participants developed sleep patterns that have two different segments.

These segments were broken up by a period of wakefulness that lasted from one to three hours. Many believe that in modern days this sleeping pattern provides more flexibility.

On the other hand, there are sleep experts who claim that this sleeping pattern, could be beneficial to people who suffer from insomnia.

How this can be beneficial to those who fight insomnia?

People who suffer from insomnia do their best to fight a monophasic schedule.

By having two different sleeping periods, they could stop fighting this and try sleeping in two periods and actually benefit from it.

There is another type of biphasic sleep that people should think about. This type involves a more extended rest period at night but also includes naps during the day.

Many modern cultures follow this schedule, especially countries in Europe and Latin America.

The biggest pro of this routine is that it allows people to nap during the afternoon.

Traditional biphasic sleeping may not be the best solution for most people because it requires discipline and going to bed after dusk.

Also, numerous work-related and family obligations require that individuals either stay up later or rise at an hour that allows them to get to work on time.

Some, just some people are flexible enough to adhere to a routine like this one, and for them, biphasic sleeping leaves them feeling fatigued. If this is the case for you, think about a monophasic schedule as the best solution.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What Did Humans Sleep On Before Beds?

Before spacious and luxurious beds people used to sleep on improvised beds. Those beds were actually very basic sleeping surfaces like piles of straw.

From there, these primitive mattresses evolved to stuffed fabrics, and down feathers.

Later on, bedframes were introduced, although some types of beds were present since the Egyptian era.

2. What Did Cavemen Sleep On?

As expected, cavemen slept on the floor of their caves. In some rare cases, they would use a pile of straw or even leaves to make a more cozy sleeping surface.

Later on, they realized that a higher sleeping surface could keep the bugs and insects away, so they began sleeping on elevated structures within the cave.

3. Is Segmented Sleep Healthy?

There is no right answer to this question, becuase it all depends on whom you are talking with.

Some doctors believe that segmented sleep is the only way for people with insomnia to get some sleep, while others believe that segmented sleep is destructive and far from being practical.

Since we are living in modern times with smartphones around us, it’s possible that technology could severely interfere with the time between the first and second sleep.

The Bottom Line

Are you familiar with biphasic sleep? If yes, great, because most people aren’t familiar with this practice.

Moreover, this sleeping style could even help them sleep better, but they cannot test it if they are not aware of it. If you cannot sleep, don’t stress about it initially.

Try to implement a healthy sleeping routine, try meditating, reading a book, drinking a tea that promotes sleep, or something else chilling that could easily put you to sleep.

If you have frequent sleep-related issues, make sure that you visit your doctor. Sleep well.

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