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Millions of years of a good night's sleep
An ancient tradition that unites all hominids
When it is time for a primate to rest, they are faced with the challenge of finding a safe, comfortable spot to sleep.
Some sleep in tree holes, others on bare branches, and still others on the bare ground or on cliffs. While most primates do not build sleeping nests, all the great apes do.
There appears to be important components of social learning, trial and error, and various environmental factors involved in the construction of nests. Wild chimpanzees, for example, tend to exhibit more sophisticated nest-building behaviors, and produce more elaborate, higher-quality nests, than captive-born ones.
In all human societies that I am aware of, people make beds (i.e., construct or combine materials to sleep on), and yet the oldest archaeological evidence for bedding seems to go back only about 200 thousand years.
The reason for this is no doubt due to preservation bias in the archaeological record: materials used for bedding such as wood, plants and animal skins tend not to preserve well.
Of course, human beds are often made with complex tools, and use much greater diversity of materials than the sleeping nests of other great apes. The use of animal skins as sleeping mats for example certainly could not have emerged until stone tools were already developed and in use, to extract and process the hide.
In some cases though the preparation of a sleeping space can be quite simple. Among the Mbuti of Central Africa, while beds are commonly made with sticks lashed together and bound by vine to a frame, anthropologist Colin Turnbull notes that, “Some Pygmies don't bother with a bed but just put the sticks on the ground and lie on them, or sleep on dry leaves.” Anthropologist Richard Temple writes of various Andaman Island societies, “Jarawas sleep on the wood ashes of the fires. Önges on raised bamboo platforms. Other tribes on leaves and in sand-holes.”
Despite the diversity of the practice across human societies, the construction of sleeping nests (beds) arguably represents the oldest consistently maintained tradition in our lineage.