Ancient humans – and dormice – might unlock the key to long space flights

ancient humans space
Image credit | Mike_Kiev/

Ancient humans and dormice appear to have something in common and it might pave the way for scientists to figure out how we survive years in space.

Both hibernate.

A study of a site in Northern Spain, called – melodramatically – the ‘pit of bones’ unearthed something unusual. Many of the bones of ancient humans (and Neanderthals) from between 400 and 600,000 years ago, hibernated to cope with the extreme winters of that period. This could help us work out how to keep humans alive and healthy on long space flights.

While sticking modern humans in a deep freeze is the stuff of police thrillers rather than science, dormice might be a better place to start. By throwing more effort at understanding how the metabolism of mice works when slowed down to a point next door to death, we might work out (more quickly) how that might work for humans.

And the fact that ancient humans seem to have had it in them to do it, makes the impetus to research it all the greater.

As we know, one of the great barriers to us getting out into space proper (apart from achieving light speed, working out how not to sneeze in space and other small details) is the effect of zero gravity on the human mind and body.

We reported the experiment on the space twins, which showed just how marked these effects can be over a relatively very short time span.

There is, of course, an enormous amount that we have learned from nature and our own history and it is not entirely science fiction to believe that we can learn how to hibernate again. After all, without someone learning which leaves and seeds to munch the make a sore throat better, modern medicine would not exist.

While this may be another fantasy to many, there is a part of you that wants to believe that we are on a treasure hunt, where the prize is safe space travel. We seem to be picking up clues on a regular basis now. We now have spacecraft outside our solar system, we are seeing ways that we could slingshot round Jupiter to pick up enough speed to go as far as our imaginations can take us and, of course, the stories of other civilisations being ‘out there’ are a regular occurrence. And becoming more officially recognised than ever before.

Why should we not believe that discoveries about ancient humans and how they hibernated takes us one step closer to piecing the clues together and winning the treasure hunt?

It may be a long hunt for us, impatient as we are.

But in 200 years from now, when we sail through the outer edges of our solar system, off on our summer holidays, we should tip our hat to the ancient humans who taught us how to hibernate our way to explore strange new worlds.

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