Elizabeth Preston | Knowable Magazine
On dry nights, the San hunter-gatherers of Namibia often sleep under the stars. They have no electric lights or new Netflix releases keeping them awake. Yet when they rise in the morning, they haven’t gotten any more hours of sleep than a typical Western city-dweller who stayed up doom-scrolling on their smartphone.
Research has shown that people in non-industrial societies — the closest thing to the kind of setting our species evolved in — average less than seven hours a night, says evolutionary anthropologist David Samson at the University of Toronto Mississauga. That’s a surprising number when you consider our closest animal relatives. Humans sleep less than any ape, monkey or lemur that scientists have studied. Chimps sleep around 9.5 hours out of every 24. Cotton-top tamarins sleep around 13. Three-striped night monkeys are technically nocturnal, though really, they’re hardly ever awake — they sleep for 17 hours a day.
Samson calls this discrepancy the human sleep paradox. “How is this possible, that we’re sleeping the least out of any primate?” he says. Sleep is known to be important for our memory, immune function and other aspects of health. A predictive model of primate sleep based on factors such as body mass, brain size and diet concluded that humans ought to sleep about 9.5 hours out of every 24, not seven. “Something weird is going on,” Samson says.