Modern Hunter-Gatherers Probably Get Less Sleep Than You Do

Oct 22, 2015

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By Charles Q. Choi

Although it might seem that the glowing lights from smartphones and other trappings of modern life reduce people’s ability to get a decent amount of shut-eye, scientists now suggest that people do not get any less sleep today than they did in prehistoric times.

The researchers looked at people living in three hunter-gatherer societies in rural parts of Africa and South America. Investigations showed that these traditional peoples slept slightly less than 6.5 hours a night on average. In comparison, people in industrial societies usually average seven to eight hours per night.

“We find that contrary to much conventional wisdom, it is very likely that we do not sleep less than our distant ancestors,” said the study’s senior author, Jerome Siegel, a sleep researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

However, the researchers also found that insomnia may have been more rare in ancient times than it is now. This finding suggests that looking to the past could lead to new ways of treating insomnia, which afflicts more than 20 percent of people in the United States at some point during their lives, the investigators added.


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5 comments on “Modern Hunter-Gatherers Probably Get Less Sleep Than You Do

  • @OP – However, the researchers also found that insomnia may have been more rare in ancient times than it is now.

    I think those who have experience of camping in the open, could confirm that deeper undisturbed sleep after a day’s energetic activity is more refreshing, as is waking with the dawn, or sleeping until ready to rise, rather than being timetabled by alarm clocks, heating systems, etc.

    There is often a dichotomy on tent camp-sites, of late rising by those who were sitting up late drinking, or at pubs, and families who are to bed early and rise early with young children.
    The better organised sites segregate these groups to avoid them disturbing each other late or early.



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  • Something I’ve noticed recently, after changing careers from mostly spending time in bullshit meetings, continuously making phone calls and responding to urgent emails to now working more or less as a labourer in the construction industry, is that family circumstances make it very difficult to get to sleep before around midnight. (Family crises, failures, ultimatums to teenagers and 20 somethings who won’t do the dishes / tidy rooms etc.) On the other hand on-site inductions and the traffic gridlock and parking rage of the greater Sydney metro area means typically waking up at 5:00 am or earlier. Which means approx 5 hours sleep per night, less the interruptions allowing for essential unplanned urination, kids coming home late after SES emergency call-outs and military manoeuvres, dealing with neurotic dogs barking at rats, possums, bats etc, neurotic wife not sure if left doors or car unlocked etc. Fortunately I seldom need to set an alarm clock as the racket from nearby road traffic reaches a crescendo about 5:00 am as pretty much every non-office worker in Sydney hits the road to attempt to avoid gridlock. (Most people get paid for only 8 hours work, but most people actually seem to spend around 4 or 5 hours in unpaid commuting, unless they work in large government or private sector bureaucracies located near convenient public transport hubs. Very similar to hunter gather lifestyle where one’s home is reasonably close to one’s workplace. i.e. the typical government employee is effectively typical of a primitive hunter gather lifestyle.)

    Nevertheless I’ve never felt better. Optimal body composition despite no longer having a gym membership or involved in any sport. (Similar overall weight and dimensions, fitness, strenght etc. as at age 25, 30 years later. Nil health issues ever.) Even my tolerance for alcohol remains approximately similar to early 20s. (Though not sure if that’s even a meaningful metric of anything. I’ve tried to extend my alcohol tolerance with high intensity training exercises, but doesn’t seem to work.)

    As long as I don’t eat anything all day then I don’t get tired or lose sense of energy even on rare occasions when I have no food and negligible drink for over 48 hours, and not so much sleep either.

    I’ve strongly felt that I need 8 hours sleep each night and have slightly resented my present circumstances on occasion. This article is cause for tremendous optimism. Possibly explains why I feel OK anyway, and don’t tend to get sick with the usual range of rhino viruses and seasonal mild flu pandemics.

    If I can work out how to massively increase my alcohol intake then all should be good. Most people in my industry also smoke a lot of cigarettes. Something that may also contribute to their ability to tolerate discomfort etc. Apparently most remnant hunter gather cultures all over the world these days are now hopeless alcoholics and heavy smokers and drug users. So possibly come connection there. Perhaps just need to add in the relevant amount of gambling.



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  • Pete H
    Oct 24, 2015 at 5:16 am

    Something I’ve noticed recently, after changing careers from mostly spending time in bullshit meetings, continuously making phone calls and responding to urgent emails to now working more or less as a labourer in the construction industry, is that family circumstances make it very difficult to get to sleep before around midnight.

    A rather distant relative of mine changed jobs from an office administrator to a truck-driver.

    He said that whereas he was mentally exhausted at the end of office work, after driving his wagon home, he had a shower and was relaxed and mentally refreshed ready for socialising with family and friends.

    I suspect that the nature of the traffic could affect this.
    My daughter has recently up-graded her quality of life, by moving house and exchanging an hours’ commute in congested traffic jams, for a half-hour commute cruising on open country roads.



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  • also, in these cultures, i suppose work is shared more evenly between the still able, while outcome is shared more fairly between everyone.

    All while also being more connected to each other through prolonged time spent together while doing whatever needs to be done.

    We have different chores to do that require different organization and take most of us away from one circle of trust to very differing others, switching between groups at least twice a day, both with their needs and requirements. That is not bad at all, but it is a lot different than being with your tribe all day! It usually requires us to live to even so slightly different social rules at different places, both giving us very different situations to cope with, especially since most of them are more competitive than collaborative. And little time in between to really work them out. After work there are still a hell lot of other things to do even in our automated world, while all our social connections are sitting in the palm of our hand which is also very good, If we have time left! In any case we are chatting all day, doing business, making party plans if there are any possible, and contemplating the state of the world and how much time we could afford to do something in that regard…

    Maybe, because we have so much more thinking to do all day, our brains just need more time to rest and reevaluate that information-flood? Maybe even a whole other rem-cycle would be necessary and that is the reason we are not ready after two, and neither after two and a half…please could someone look into that? I don’t think I want to sleep bad for the rest of my life, or become addicted to meds…



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