While bed, pillow, and sleep technology constantly evolve, the idea of sleeping in a bed dates back millions of years. The earliest humans imitated the sleeping habits of apes, building makeshift beds from leaves, grass, and plant life.
While we can’t be certain how long the earliest humans would sleep and in what position, it’s assumed that early man rested 5 to 7 hours each night and slept on their side, similar to wild simians.
The ancient Egyptians popularized the idea of a raised bed around 3,000 BC, and the design evolved through the Greek and Roman empires, the medieval era, the Renaissance, and beyond.
As recently as the late 19th Century, only the wealthiest people were guaranteed the opportunity to sleep in a bed. The poor frequently slept on the ground, using cushions or sacks as makeshift mattresses.
Pillows were first popularized by the Romans, who would stuff cloth with straw or hay to enhance comfort. Before this, pillows were constructed from stone to lift the head from the ground for protection.
How Did People Sleep Before There Were Beds?
The concept of a bed can be traced back some 23 million years to the Miocene period. Humans didn’t yet walk the Earth in this era, so we can thank our simian ancestors for devising the concept of a bed.
Apes were believed to gather and compile plant material to increase comfort during sleep.
It’s claimed that apes learned that growing more comfortable overnight improved sleep quality and enhanced cognitive function in the morning, which is essential to survival in the wild.
As apes evolved into humans, this habit was maintained.
Early humans living in the Neolithic period (8,000 – 3,000 BC) would sleep on similar arrangements, primarily due to a nomadic existence spent fleeing predators and seeking safe locations to rest.
Bed as we know them can be dated around 77,000 years.
What’s understood to be the first example of a bed, constructed again from grass and plant matter and measuring 12 inches in height and 22 square feet in area, was found in a cave in South Africa.
At least one Zulu family shared this sleeping space, as sleep alone was alien to ancient civilizations. Sleeping in huddled masses enabled people to share body heat and improved safety levels.
How Have Beds Evolved?
Ancient Egyptians are credited with the creation of the bed in 3,000 BC, but in their earliest days, beds were considered a luxury only available to the rich.
Servants and poor Egyptians would sleep on the floor, while pharaohs and the wealthy had a raised bed.
In other cultures, including the West, people throw cushions to the ground to sleep upon. The English word “mattress” is taken from the Arabic term “maṭraḥ,” which translates as “something thrown down.”
Let’s look at the evolution of beds and discuss how older civilizations ensured they could sleep well.
The ancient Egyptians introduced the world to beds as we know them. Tutankhamun first popularized the concept of a raised bed as a lofted sleeping space, which denoted his status as above his subjects.
Pharaohs and their trusted companions would sleep in beds constructed from gold or ebony and encrusted with jewels, while a range of wool cushions would serve as mattresses.
Wealthier citizens who could afford a basic wooden bed would use this to escape the risks of sleeping directly on the ground.
Ancient Rome and Greece
The Roman Empire was responsible for many advances, including the use of beds.
Wealthier Romans – and Greeks, who enjoyed a similar civilization and co-existed with the Romans – began constructing beds from metal.
These bedframes were stuffed with feathers or straw to create a comfortable mattress, with more metal supports placed under the bed to keep this mattress in place.
Those with less wealth but still capable of affording a bed settled for raised wooden frames, with the mattress tied into place using string.
The poor would sleep on the ground, relying on a woolen blanket for warmth.
Arguably more than any other time in human history, the medieval era – considered to fall between the 5th and 15th Centuries – saw sleeping arrangements defined by wealth.
Beds in this timeframe were considered a way to showcase social status.
The wealthy would enjoy large, ornate beds in private chambers. The medieval era saw the invention of the headboard and the 4-poster bed, covered by canopies and drapes to keep out insects.
Elevation of beds was also seen as a sign of wealth. The most luxurious beds of the time required a stool to gain access to, while mattresses were usually stuffed with down feathers for maximum comfort.
The rich valued their beds in medieval times, so these furnishings were typically the epicenter of all social activity. People would dine and receive guests in bed, and offspring usually inherited these sleeping quarters to keep them in the family for generations.
Peasants of the medieval era had a very different experience. The poor would sleep in their masses, on the ground, in a sack stuffed with hay. This originates from the idioms “hit the hay” or “hit the sack.”
During the Renaissance, which began in the 14th Century and concluded in the 17th Century, beds became more accessible to the common man.
While the poorest still slept on the ground, now using hay as a mattress, the middle classes could afford a bed and a dedicated bedroom.
Trundle beds became popular during this era. The master or mistress of a house would sleep in the upper bed, while a second bed would be located underneath, pulled out, and play host to children or servants.
17th – 19th Centuries
During the 18th Century and beyond, beds became more simple.
The grand 4-poster began falling out of fashion in favor of a more traditional wooden or metal frame. Mattresses also evolved in this period, with cotton stuffing becoming more common than basic hay.
The 18th Century also originated the idea of the bedroom becoming a private sanctuary reserved exclusively for sleep or intimacy.
People would no longer receive guests in bed, and servants wouldn’t be invited to sleep on the floor.
Beds shrunk further in the 19th Century and became more traditional. Metal bedsprings became popular in the 19th Century, replacing the wool and ropes that previously held a mattress in place.
Poorer people had access to beds at this time, though it was by no means a guarantee.
Many poorer households had a single bed that housed all occupants, and the most underprivileged would need to track down a doss house to find a bed for the night.
As we move closer to the modern era, beds and sleeping arrangements underwent several revolutions and evolutions. Unique sleeping solutions for smaller spaces, like the Murphy bed, were invented, and the idea of sleeping alone grew in popularity.
One of the most significant advances in modern bed technology was the innerspring mattress, which became popular in the 1930s and commonplace by the 1950s.
This, in turn, encouraged the creation of sturdier bedframes, like the divan base.
Memory foam mattresses were sold for the first time in 1992, and as of the 21st Century, more types of beds than ever before are available.
How Did Humans Sleep Without Pillows?
Pillows didn’t necessarily evolve at the same pace as beds. The first use of pillows is believed to date back to around 7,000 BC, but this was no soft cushion.
Pillows were made of stone and were primarily designed to lift the head from the ground, preventing insects and other small, ground-based animals from crawling into the ears, nose, or mouth during sleep.
As with beds, we can thank Egyptians for progressing the use of pillows.
Pharaohs would carve pillows from wood. While naturally not as comfortable as the feather-stuffed pillows we enjoy today, this was a step closer to comfort.
These wooden pillows evolved into bamboo and bronze in the following Century, with ancient Chinese civilizations advancing what the Egyptians had begun.
Still, the Greeks and Romans began stuffing pillows with straw and feathers for enhanced comfort.
These natural components gave way to wool and cotton in the intervening centuries, with foam entering the world of sleep in the mid-1960s and beyond.
1966 saw the invention of the first memory foam pillow, and sleep technology has continued to advance.
What Position Did Early Humans Sleep in?
Based on the size of early beds, it’s assumed that the earliest humans slept in the fetal position.
This would enable people to squeeze onto the round piles of leaves and grass that acted as beds while retaining body heat while sleeping in the open.
Investigating the sleeping habits of wild apes can also potentially shine a light on how early humans slept.
We’ve established that early man imitated the construction of beds of apes so that they may have adopted the same sleeping posture.
As established by the BMJ, apes lay on their side and use their arm as a pillow. If humans were to do the same, the head would be elevated and the neck supported.
Based on the sleeping position of modern tribal people, another posture may have been to lay on the side and lift the hips, with the legs in a ‘reverse recovery position.’
This protects the genitals from attack by insects, which was a concern for unclothed early humans.
How Long Did Ancient Humans Sleep?
It is no secret that 8 hours of sleep is considered the optimum amount of rest in modern life.
Research suggests that our Neanderthal ancestors slept for a similar period, though sleep duration may have dozed for 5 to 7 hours.
The theory claims that early humans were governed by their circadian rhythms, just like us.
Sleep would be obtained after sunset once safety in a sleep space was confirmed, with the sun acting as nature’s alarm clock and encouraging people to rise.
Of course, we can’t know the sleep habits of early humans for certain, but these habits are based on a study published in Current Biology.
The participants of this study were based in 3 contemporary locations considered preindustrial – Namibia, Tanzania, and Bolivia – and lacked access to electricity, artificial lighting, or gadgets.
The only concession to modern times was the application of a smartwatch to the wrist of each participant, which tracked movement.
These watches revealed these individuals’ sleep vs. activity habits, and it’s a safe assumption that our ancestors behaved similarly – though it should be noted that 21st-century life is subject to fewer risks in the form of wild predators.
Sleep has evolved significantly over human history, especially using beds, mattresses, and pillows.
Humans have always sought an ability to make ourselves comfortable while we doze, suggesting that the importance of a good night’s sleep has long been understood.