how did people sleep before there were beds?
Questions And Answers

How Did Humans Sleep Before Beds? (Evolution of Sleep)

The concept of sleeping in a bed dates back millions of years. The earliest humans imitated the sleeping habits of apes, creating makeshift beds from leaves, grass, and plants.

While we can’t be sure 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. 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 popularized by the Romans, who would stuff cloth with straw or hay to enhance comfort. Before this, stone pillows would elevate the head from the ground.

How Did People Sleep Before There Were Beds?

The concept of a bed can be traced back 23 million years to the Miocene period. Humans hadn’t yet walked the Earth, meaning we can thank our simian ancestors for beds.

Apes gathered and compiled plant material to increase comfort during sleep.

Apes learned that overnight comfort improved sleep quality and enhanced cognitive function, which is essential to survival in the wild. As apes evolved into humans, this habit continued.

Early humans 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.

Beds, as we know them, can be dated around 77,000 years.

What’s understood to be the first example of a bed, constructed 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 did humans sleep without pillows?

How Have Beds Evolved?

Ancient Egyptians are credited with creating beds in 3,000 BC. In their early days, beds were a luxury. 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,” meaning “something thrown down.”

Ancient Egypt

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 wool cushions would serve as mattresses.

Wealthier citizens who could afford a basic wooden bed would use this to avoid 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.

Medieval Times

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.

The elevation of beds was also seen as a sign of wealth. The most luxurious beds of the time required a stool to access, while mattresses were usually stuffed with down feathers for maximum comfort.

The rich valued their beds in medieval times, so these furnishings were central to 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 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.”

The Renaissance

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 simpler.

The grand 4-poster fell out of fashion in favor of a more traditional wooden or metal frame. Mattresses also evolved, with cotton stuffing becoming more common than hay.

The bedroom became a private sanctuary reserved for sleep and intimacy in the 18th Century.

People would no longer receive guests in beds, 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 once held a mattress in place.

Poorer people had access to beds at this time, although it was by no means a guarantee.

Many poorer households had a single bed that housed all occupants. The most underprivileged would need to track down a doss house to find a bed for the night.

Modern Times

As we approach the modern era, beds, and other sleeping arrangements have undergone several revolutions and evolutions.

Unique sleeping solutions for smaller spaces, like the Murphy bed, have been invented, and the idea of sleeping alone has grown 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, led to the creation of sturdier bedframes, like the divan base.

Memory foam mattresses were sold for the first time in 1992. 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 dates back to around 7,000 BC, but this was no soft cushion.

Stone pillows were intended to lift the head from the ground, preventing insects and other small, ground-based animals from crawling into the ears, nose, and mouth during sleep.

As with beds, we can thank Egyptians for the use of pillows.

The Pharaohs would carve pillows from wood. While not as comfortable as the feather-stuffed pillows, this was a step closer to comfort.

These wooden pillows evolved into bamboo and bronze in the next Century, with ancient Chinese civilizations advancing what the Egyptians had begun.

Still, the Greeks and Romans began stuffing pillows with straw and feathers for superior comfort.

These natural components gave way to wool and cotton, 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?

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 may also clarify how early humans slept.

We’ve established that early humans imitated the construction of beds used by apes so that they could adopt the same sleeping posture.

As established by the journal BMJ, apes lay on their sides and use their arms as a pillow. If humans did 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 their 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 optimal in modern life.

Research suggests that our Neanderthal ancestors slept for a similar period, likely 5 to 7 hours. The theory is that early humans were governed by their circadian rhythms.

Sleep would occur 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’ll never know the sleep habits of early humans for sure, but these habits are based on a scientific study published in the journal Current Biology.

This study’s participants were based in 3 contemporary locations (Namibia, Tanzania, and Bolivia) considered preindustrial and lacked access to electricity, artificial lighting, or gadgets.

The only modern concession was a smartwatch on each participant’s wrist to track movement.

These smartwatches revealed their habits during sleep and activity. It’s a safe assumption that our ancestors behaved similarly, although 21st-century life involves less risk from wild predators.

Sleep has evolved over human history due to beds, mattresses, and pillows.

Humans have always sought to make themselves comfortable while sleeping, suggesting that the importance of a good night’s sleep has long been understood.