Hadza sleep biology: Evidence for flexible sleep-wake patterns in hunter-gatherers

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2017 Mar;162(3):573-582. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23160. Epub 2017 Jan 7.


Objectives: Cross-cultural sleep research is critical to deciphering whether modern sleep expression is the product of recent selective pressures, or an example of evolutionary mismatch to ancestral sleep ecology. We worked with the Hadza, an equatorial, hunter-gatherer community in Tanzania, to better understand ancestral sleep patterns and to test hypotheses related to sleep segmentation.

Methods: We used actigraphy to analyze sleep-wake patterns in thirty-three volunteers for a total of 393 days. Linear mixed effects modeling was performed to assess ecological predictors of sleep duration and quality. Additionally, functional linear modeling (FLM) was used to characterize 24-hr time averaged circadian patterns.

Results: Compared with post-industrialized western populations, the Hadza were characterized by shorter (6.25 hr), poorer quality sleep (sleep efficiency = 68.9%), yet had stronger circadian rhythms. Sleep duration time was negatively influenced by greater activity, age, light (lux) exposure, and moon phase, and positively influenced by increased day length and mean nighttime temperature. The average daily nap ratio (i.e., the proportion of days where a nap was present) was 0.54 (SE = 0.05), with an average nap duration of 47.5 min (SE = 2.71; n = 139).

Discussion: This study showed that circadian rhythms in small-scale foraging populations are more entrained to their ecological environments than Western populations. Additionally, Hadza sleep is characterized as flexible, with a consistent early morning sleep period yet reliance upon opportunistic daytime napping. We propose that plasticity in sleep-wake patterns has been a target of natural selection in human evolution.

Keywords: actigraphy; ecology; forager; napping; segmented sleep.

MeSH terms

  • Actigraphy
  • Adult
  • Anthropology, Physical
  • Black People / ethnology*
  • Black People / statistics & numerical data*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Tanzania
  • Young Adult