These days, society is making so many demands on our time. With the office only as far as the smartphone, it seems like our workdays keep getting longer and longer. And who can forget about our TV, video games, and social media to keep us from getting to bed on time? With all these distractions, it’s no wonder why modern people are so tired all the time.
However, according to a new study looking at sleep in “pre-industrial” societies , we may actually have slept less during prehistoric times when we lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
You Don’t Have to Sleep When the Sun Goes Down
This conclusion is based on observations from three hunter-gatherer societies that still live in very traditional ways. The groups studied include the Hadza in Tanzania, the San in Namibia, and the Tsimane in Bolivia. They used daily fitness trackers — like a Jawbone or Fitbit — to chart activities over nearly 1200 days and nights from 98 individuals.
They found that the sleep patterns for these peoples were similar, despite their separation in culture and geography. Overall, these people got an average of 6.5 hours a sleep a night — just less than the average American, who gets about 6.8 hours of sleep a night according to a 2013 survey.
Are We Getting Quality Sleep?
This data is interesting, but it leaves us with a tough puzzle: if we’re actually getting more sleep than we used to in pre-industrial times, why do we feel so tired all the time? Industrial society is probably part of it. However, we can also look to snoring and sleep apnea for their contribution to our exhaustion. Surveys of modern people only record how much time we think we spend asleep, but in actuality we spend a lot less time sleeping, especially if you have sleep apnea, which causes you to wake up repeatedly through the night.
Sleep apnea is probably virtually unknown during these pre-industrial peoples. Obesity is one of the primary risk factors for obstructive sleep apnea. None of the tribal peoples are obese: their body mass index (BMI) ranges from 18 to 26, while obesity is BMI 30+. For comparison, over 30% of people in the Detroit area are obese.