Slumber's Unexplored Landscape

Jo!hn johnhkm at
Wed Oct 6 20:23:50 EST 1999

Slumber's Unexplored Landscape
People in traditional societies sleep in eye-opening ways
By Bruce Bower

In such contexts, and probably throughout human evolution, solitary shut-eye
organized around a regular bedtime and a single bout of sleep proves about
as common as stock car racing or teleconferencing. Surprisingly,
anthropologists have rarely scrutinized the sleep patterns and practices of
different cultures, much less those of different classes and ethnic groups
in the United States
Worthman's findings rip the covers off any lingering suspicions that people
everywhere sleep pretty much alike. Far from the wallpapered confines of
middle-class bedrooms, sleep typically unfolds in shared spaces that feature
constant background noise emanating from other sleepers, various domestic
animals, fires maintained for warmth and protection from predators, and
other people's nearby nighttime activities.

Groups in Worthman's analysis include Ache foragers in Paraguay, !Kung
hunter-gatherers in Africa, Swat Pathan herders in Pakistan, and Balinese
farmers in Indonesia. For all these groups and six others, communal sleep
equals safe sleep, because sleepers can count on there being someone else up
or easily awakened at all hours of the night to warn others of a threat or

If prehistoric people slept in two nightly periods, then regularly awakening
out of REM sleep may have allowed them to reflect on and remember their
dreams in a semiconscious state that's generally unavailable to modern
sleepers. Sleep compressed into a single stint may thus encourage modern
humans to lose touch with dreams, myths, and fantasies, Wehr argues
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