Every traveller knows the dilemma of having to sleep in unfamiliar beds with unfamiliar pillows. But why is it that the nuance of a pillow makes so much of a difference if humans never used them in the first place?
I’ve slept in a lot of beds. Most of them weren’t mine.
Across just a month in the Galapagos, I slept in over a dozen beds, each with a different set of pillows. They varied from the unspeakably thick to the flimsy, often mixed together in single sets on the one bed. I can only imagine the nightmare of pillow allocation between couples abroad. Fortunately, I often travel solo.
Pillows are the first thing I check in a hostel, right after the bathroom. A good pillow compensates for any deficiency in the mattress, and it’s my way of determining whether I’m in for a good night’s sleep.
I prefer my pillows like certain folk prefer their celebrities: shallow and slightly dense. I also have a three-step sleep routine: I start off on my back, then I turn over onto my stomach facing my right, and then I pivot to my left, my arms under the pillow, my legs sprawled until I inevitably enter slumber. Pillows that are too thick compromise my routine, forcing me into yielding positions that push my neck into acute angles, leaving me feeling sore the morning after.
But without a pillow, I’m even more of a wreck. Why?
The answer, I found, is not as complex as I thought it would be.
Animals actually do support themselves in some way, just not with pillows
If Darwin taught us anything, it’s that many of the habits we identify as human are remnant behaviours of our ancestors.
In studying the sleep habits of the great apes, what becomes clear after sifting through some of the cutest photos across the internet, is that while pillows aren’t explicitly used, animals are often found supporting their heads in some way while they sleep. Almost uniformly, they sleep on their sides, supporting their heads with an arm.
Other animals use each other as support, like the Galapagos sea lion. Look closely and you’ll notice the calves using their mothers as pillows.
Although these vagabonds seem content with the bench or floor.
My logical fallacy was that if pillows never existed, we never needed them. In researching further, I realised I was going about the question in the wrong way, and my definition of a pillow was inhibitive and narrow.
Humans have been using pillows since 7,000BC
Somewhere down the evolutionary path, our heads got bigger (physically and figuratively), and we progressed down the path of convenience. But not before going through some harder iterations.
The ancient Mesopotamians were the first civilisation to use pillows, which they made out of stone about 9,000 years ago. Clearly, the term pillow is used loosely here as they were headrests more than anything, used exclusively by the wealthy as a means to elevate heads away from bed bugs. They were not comfortable.
Elsewhere in ancient Egypt several thousands of years later, pillows have been found in mummy tombs, made of wood and stone.
The ancient Chinese also began with hard pillows made with jade, porcelain, and bamboo. Although in some cases (pun intended), they would drape these devices with soft fabrics.
It wasn’t until the rise of ancient Europe that soft pillows were first pioneered and mastered. They filled pillows with feathers and straw and were, like many first-to-market products, first used more commonly among the upper class. Churches helped to mainstream the idea of cushioned support as they rolled out kneeling pillows to assist the faithful during prolonged sessions of prayer.
Humans haven’t gone without ever since.
To pillow or not to pillow?
We know there exists a time when we slept without pillows and our bodies and minds got along just fine, progressing as we did through the cognitive revolution.
Clearly, something about the shape of our heads and upper bodies necessitates some kind of elevated support, and perhaps our ancestors simply had to make do with sleeping on their arms for a good million years before they developed the cognitive abilities to fashion inanimate objects to do the jobs for them. And maybe it is the pillow we can thank for our subsequent trundles through the industrial revolution.
Whatever the case may be, these days, pillows are sold in dizzying varieties, with each new iteration of memory foam or synthetic invention promising to bring us ever closer to that highly coveted realm of sleep. As extraneous forces compete for the remaining waking hours of our day, scientific research into every aspect of sleep can feel like an overload of information, clouding our judgment between what’s real and what is actually the result of capitalist marketing. Sleep experts often extol the virtues of sufficient elevation to encourage blood flow and reduce neck symptoms. But how much elevation and why? Take for example a study in 2015, which suggests that the optimal height of a pillow is 10cm for most people (note: the experiment studied only 16 adults). It’s all a bit much.
I started this piece with a mild curiosity about where our dependency on pillows comes from. And I end it no closer to knowing much more than that I remain loyal to my current shallow and slightly dense pillow preferences.
The Effect of Different Pillow Heights on the Parameters of Cervicothoracic Spine Segments: Korean J Spine. 2015 Sep;12(3):135-8. doi: 10.14245/kjs.2015.12.3.135. Epub 2015 Sep 30.
Levy, Joel (2002). Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things. Buffalo, NY: Firefly.
Seath, J.; A.P. Gize; A.R. David; K. Hall; P. Lythgoe; R. Speak; S. Caldwell (April 2006). “An atypical Ancient Egyptian pillow from Sedment el-Gebel: evidence for migrant worker trading and technology”. Journal of Archaeological Science. 33 (4): 546–550. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2005.09.014.
Smith, William (1875). A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray. pp. 456, 472, 473.
“Porcelain Pillows”. chinaculture.org. 24 September 2003. Archived from the original on 16 March 2006