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Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You – Are We Doing It Wrong?


Evidence continues to emerge, both scientific and historical, suggesting that the way in which the majority of us currently sleep may not actually be good for us.

In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a paper that included over 15 years of research. It cited an overwhelming amount of historical evidence which reveals that humans used to in fact sleep in two different chunks. (1)

In 2005, he published a book titled “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” which included more than 500 references to a disjointed sleeping pattern. It included diaries, medical books, literature and more taken from various sources ranging from Homer’s Odyssey all the way to modern tribes in Nigeria.

“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge.” – Ekirch (source)

What Was Found In The Research

Ekirch’s research found that we didn’t always sleep for an average of 8 hours straight. Instead, we would sleep in two shorter periods throughout the night. All sleep would occur within a 12 hour time frame that started with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, followed by being awake for 3 hours or so, and then sleeping again until the morning.

There was also some research done in the early 1990’s by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. He conducted an experiment where 14 people were put into complete darkness for 14 hours a day for an entire month. By the fourth week the participants had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern: the same bimodal sleeping pattern that Ekirch described. The subjects slept for approximately 4 hours, woke for another few, and then went back to sleep until morning. (2)

“Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century. This started among the urban upper classes in northern Europe and over the course of the next 200 years filtered down to the rest of Western society. By the 1920’s the idea of a first and second sleep had receded entirely from our social consciousness.” (source)

Possible Reasons As To Why It Was Like This

One reason could be that this type of segmented sleep is what really comes naturally to the human body. At least, that’s what Wehr’s experiment would suggest, but there are other theories.

Historian Craig Koslofsky writes:

“Associations with night before the 17th Century were not good. The night was a place populated by people of disrepute – criminals, prostitutes and drunks. Even the wealthy, who could afford candlelight, had better things to spend their money on. There was no prestige or social value associated with staying up all night.” (source)

Things changed, however, in 1667 when Paris became the first city in the world to light its streets, and eventually throughout Europe staying up at night became the social norm. And then the industrial revolution happened:

“People were becoming increasingly time-conscious and sensitive to efficiency, certainly before the 19th Century, but the industrial revolution intensified that attitude by leaps and bounds.” (source)

Eventually, we got to the point where parents were forcing their children to sleep at a certain time, pushing them away from the segmented sleeping pattern that was more dominant.


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