Some fossils suggest a wonderful similarity between humans and bears6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
What do space travel, exam week, Covid-19, 2020, and icy weather have in common?
They could all benefit from some human hibernation.
We know that bears, hedgehogs, bats, hummingbirds and 200 odd species do it. But, when it comes to humans, we can only look on in envy. Well, maybe, according to some scientists and the bones that they found in a deep crevasse in Spain, humans didn’t always have to be so envious.
What bones in what crevasse?
These human bones were found in a mass cave grave in northern Spain called Sima de Los Huesos– the pit of bones. It dates back 400,000 years!
Sima de Los Huesos is filled with thousands of teeth and bones. Through them, we know what we do about the evolution of humankind in Europe. Now, these fossils could hold the secret to human hibernation.
A fossil from Sima de Los Huesos. Image: The Guardian
How does hibernation work?
The essence of hibernation is body-temperature regulation. When the core temperature of the body falls, it arrives at a low-metabolic state. In this state, the body requires very little energy to function. Most of the energy of the warm-blooded body is used to maintain its body temperature. So, when we need less energy, we need less food. And when we don’t need much food, our body can use its natural fatty reserves to maintain itself. Squirrels, for example, curl up into little balls and plummet from 99 degrees to 27 degrees. After this, their body needs 99% less energy to function!
Owliver’s Obscure Observation: Scientists are studying hibernation to help doctors treat patients and assist in long-term Space travel. Generally, once our heart stops, the brain would stop getting oxygen and quickly die. However, in the cold body temperature caused by hibernation, the brain could survive for hours!
How did scientists puzzle this out?
Well, Juan-Luis Arsuaga and Antonis Bartsiokas, the scientists who made this discovery, aren’t entirely sure of their conclusion. However, they have provided very convincing arguments about why they believe in our long lost ability to disappear into a deep and endless slumber.
- How else would humans survive the harsh tundra winters with little to no food available?
- The seasonal patterns of bone damage in these fossils are the same as those of the bears and other animals that hibernate. The human bones show seasonal gaps in their bone growth. This means that during the months that they assume the Neanderthals around the Sima cave hibernated, their bone growth would stop to preserve energy and allow them to remain in a state of hibernation. Many mammals such as bushbabies and lemurs still do this when they hibernate.
- Primates, our close relatives, hibernate as well. So, it isn’t all that inconceivable that humans could once hibernate.
- Neanderthal fossils from other regions don’t show the same patterns because they all had small amounts of food that they could consume in the winter. The Sami people, for instance, didn’t hibernate even though they lived through very harsh winters. However, the scientists argue that unlike the Neanderthals that lived around the Sima cave, Sami’s had little fish and other small creatures to rely on year-round.
- These human fossils were found beside the fossils of bears who also hibernated. Could it be possible that they hibernated together?
Owliver’s Obscure Observation: Large mammals such as bears do not actually hibernate because their large bodies cannot lower their core temperature enough. Instead, they enter less deep sleep or a milder form of hibernation known as torpor. Humans would likely have entered a state of torpor as well.
Even though this may all seem very exciting, even the scientists who made this discovery admit that it sounds like ‘science fiction.’
How did humans stay healthy through this hibernation? Humans have huge brains, and since they would most likely be in a semi-hibernating state or torpor, their brain’s energy demands would be far more than a bear’s. How would the body have dealt with this demand? The most imminent question remains. How would the human body cool itself and prevent itself from maintaining its warm body temperature?
Think with Owliver
Bears have stopped hibernating due to climate change is reducing the length and intensity of their winters. Could this be why humans stopped hibernating as well?
Why is it we want to prolong our lives, even if it means that we spend more time asleep?
Why would we want to spend years asleep just so that we can explore a rock in the middle of the Universe?
We know these questions have no easy answers but feel free to share your musings with us in the comments below. If you would like to express yourself through art, song, or dance, please share your insights with us on social media.