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Sleeping Through History: How Sleep Patterns Have Changed Through Time



If you’re curious about human history, you may have wondered about how we sleep. Have humans always had an 8-hour night? Did cavemen sleep and rise according to the sun’s schedule?

For years, scientists have studied history to determine the sleep pattern of ancient peoples. Scientists believe that ancient civilizations had better sleep patterns because they listened to their bodies and the rise and fall of the sun to determine when they should go to bed and wake up each day. Without clocks, they used the natural rhythm of their bodies to schedule their days.

So, what did a caveman’s sleep schedule look like? It turns out, nothing like our modern schedule.

Today’s wisdom stipulates that at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep is ideal for proper health and productivity during the day. But the average caveman would disagree. Scientists have uncovered historical documents from thousands of years ago that in the past, there were two sleep cycles, sometimes called “first sleep” and “second sleep.” Each segment lasted approximately 4 hours, but for 2-3 hours between the periods of rest, ancient people engaged in a variety of activities, like talking, reading, praying, or physical intimacy.

During the day, ancient people may have also taken a small early afternoon nap that lasted anywhere from around 30 minutes to 2 hours. This segmented sleep schedule is documented in most parts of the world until somewhere near the industrial revolution.

When humans started routinely using artificial lights during the night, such as with kerosene lamps, gas lights, and the electric bulb, the day suddenly became longer. While in the past, 14 hours of darkness each day allowed for greater variety in sleep patterns, cheap lights increased the period in which people could do productive tasks, like crafting and sewing. This caused society to lump the few remaining sleeping hours together to extend the workday and maximize rest time.

Since the 1500s, a single-sleep night has gradually become the norm until today, where most people do not even realize that there was ever another way to sleep. All except one group, that is. One sleep historian from VirginiaTechUniversity, Roger Ekirch, believes that individuals who suffer from what we now dub “insomnia” are actually biologically sensitive to the old-time patterns of sleep. He writes in his book, “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past” that insomnia sufferers simply have stronger circadian rhythms than the majority of society. One sleep study showed that individuals subjected to a 14 hour period of darkness at night fell into the ancient rhythm. Far from being a defect, Ekirch believes that insomnia sufferers are actually falling into the ideal sleep pattern.

Is one method of sleep better than the other? It is hard to say. In the modern world, we are so set in the current model of constant night sleep that adding an additional wake period in the night would likely only lead to further sleep deprivation. However, if you can manage your day right, you may find that segmented sleep helps you feel more rested and alert during the day.