The Nap Is a Relatively Recent Invention

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Photo: Emma Farrer/Getty Images

Take a nap, they tell you. No, really, you should take a nap this afternoon. Modern life, as the story typically goes, has ruined our sleep, but you can address this by taking a glorious midday nap. People used to nap during the day, after all, or so many of us vaguely assume.

Did they, though? According to the work of Jerome Siegel, the director of the Center for Sleep Research at UCLA, that’s probably not true. The grown-up nap, according to his research, appears to be a relatively new thing for the human species. Siegel has spent time with hunter-gatherer tribes in parts of Africa and South America, whose daily lives, according to Siegel and his colleagues, probably mirror the lives of our early hunter-gatherer ancestors. In one study, as described recently by the American Psychological Association, Siegel and his team paid careful attention to the sleep habits of these groups. “[W]hile nearly all of them took a break from the sun during the heat of midday,” reports the APA, “none of the 94 individuals they followed took regular naps.”

That’s not to suggest napping is useless — this is no flossing scandal. But if you don’t often, or ever, get the luxury of an afternoon nap, at least you might take comfort in the fact that early humans didn’t either. “People like to complain that modern life is ruining sleep, but they’re just saying: Kids today!” Siegel told The Atlantic.“It’s a perennial complaint but you need data to know if it’s true.” Perhaps humans have always been terrible at sleeping. Something to ponder in lieu of the nap you wish you were taking.