I made an exciting discovery about everybody’s ancestors that appears to *almost* debunk (or, I hope, enhance) a noted scholar’s theory. The circumstances are almost comical, but my case is quite compelling–I hope readers will weigh in and tell me what they think!
In the genealogy world, an article went viral in social media circles a year or so ago, citing the book of Roger Ekirch, an historian at Virginia Tech who discovered evidence of that our ancestors slept in different patterns than we do today, for example by awakening and spending a few hours engaged in activities before then engaging in a “second sleep” period each night.
You can read more about these sleep cycles of the past in the following articles and blog posts:
Now, the *reason* for the ancestors sleeping so differently than we do today isn’t spelled out in the articles. I confess that I have not had time to pick up Dr. Ekirch’s book yet, as much as I want to (I am a bibliophile who really *should* be on the road to recovery, but alas will still not admit that she has a problem! My to-read pile almost takes up more space in this house than my children!), but from the articles, it appears that Dr. Ekirch believes that the invention of the electric light had something to do with the change from the “many sleeps” cycle of the past to the more steady, uninterrupted sleep of today.
However, over the past few months, I made a little discovery that almost debunks (or, I hope, better informs) this theory about the electric lights, so I will share it here–
Unfortunately, they did so just as we were about to purchase a new boiler furnace (on credit!) to replace our old one, which had cracked and died. Needless to say, we could not get financing for the new one, now that my husband was out of a job!
So what did we do? Well, we started living like the ancestors here in our nearly one-hundred year old home, and I stumbled upon an interesting discovery relating to Dr. Ekirch’s theory–
Our house was freezing cold everywhere but the family room, which is where we have a fireplace, so we moved the children into the family room at night to sleep. My husband and I slept in our room, which is down the hall from the family room. And every night, no matter how high or hot we stoked that fire, we awoke at 3 a.m. sharp, because the fire had ALWAYS died out!
Always, by 3 a.m. on the dot, my husband and I awoke, like clockwork, because the house was so ice cold that our bodies awakened out of sheer shock (we felt the cold) and paternal/maternal instinct that feared for our children’s safety. As soon as we sensed that the fire had died, my husband would get up, gather wood, and stoke up the fire again, while I would go around covering up the kids, who had always kicked off their covers, which made the poor things’ skin practically turn blue!
And then we would return, all shivering and freezing, to our own beds. By then, from all the cold and exertion, we were usually all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so like the ancestors in the articles, I did usually find myself reading, writing, on social media, or doing some genealogy, yes. We also talked, watched movies, or whatever.
All winter long, my husband and I engaged in the “two sleeps” described in this article, because we had no choice–the fire *always* went out by 3 a.m., and the house was always stone-cold by that hour, so we were always up and about tending to the fireplace and the sleeping kids at that hour, which awoke us both fully. It was so fascinating!
Even now now that the weather has warmed and we are no longer stoking fires at 3 a.m. and we have “sprung forward” for the time change, I find myself automatically awakening at four a.m.! I try to use that time to work on genealogy projects or writing, to make good use of the time, rather than wasting it. But I get a good chuckle as I ponder the fact that I may have accidentally stumbled upon the answer, in real life, to what a scholar has been looking for on paper–the reason why the ancestors were always up halfway through the night. Because they were COLD and worried about their children! 🙂
Indeed, I believe that fires, more than electric lights, are the reason behind the “two sleeps” our ancestors experienced back in the day! Something much more parental, Darwinian, more “survival of the fittest”–er, warmest–was at work here, I believe! 🙂
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