The French style of hibernating wasn’t hibernation in the strict biological sense of the term. Their body temperature didn’t plummet and they didn’t sleep uninterrupted for six months. It seems more similar to the ‘denning’ of bears: a kind of winter torpor, although no humans have developed the handy bear-trick of recycling their urine into protein.
There are some extraordinary stories of human beings who have survived in states that closely resemble hibernation. In October 2006, Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, a 35 year-old Japanese office worker, fell down a y slope while attending a work party near Kobe. His apparently lifeless body was found 24 days later, during which doctors estimated his core temperature had fallen to 22°C (as opposed to the normal 36/37°C). He made a full recovery in hospital.
In Canada a similar case involved Erika Norday, a 13 month-old toddler who wandered off in her nappy and t-shirt in temperatures of -11°C. She was clinically dead when discovered – her heart had stopped beating for two hours and her body temperature was down to 16°C. She also made a full recovery, despite some nasty frostbite.
These cases have been studied intensely, as solving the riddle of human hibernation would not only make deep space travel possible, it could also be used clinically to buy for people waiting for an organ transplant or to delay shock in accident victims.
At the beginning of the 19th century, France was four-fifths rural. Almost a third of these lived in hamlets of fewer than 35 people. Without an industrial revolution to transform its roads, railways and canals, travelling in ‘la France profonde’ was as exotic as a trip to the lands of Tartary. In the years after the revolution of 1789, reports came back of almost unimaginably primitive lifestyles.
The peasant’s year was divided into two seasons: five months of labour, where 99% of the work was done and seven months of winter. As money was practically unknown in rural France until the late 19th century, there was little motivation to do anything other than conserve energy. It seems in many places, whole families just took to their beds, snug under their hayloft, with a supply of dried and preserved food and their animals in the next room to keep them warm. If anyone died, the corpse was stored on the roof and buried when the weather got warmer.
In limestone areas such as the Dordogne and the Loire and around Arras, large multi-storey cave complexes were excavated which could accommodate hundreds of people. An official report from 1807 described one of these ‘cave villages’: ‘The vital air is constantly contaminated by the breath of eight to ten individuals who are piled up there in a tiny dwelling for 12 to 15 hours day with only one air-hole between them.’
There are no reports of British peasants taking to their beds all winter, but this may be a question of diet as much as tradition. Far from the rich provincial fare of cuisine maman that we now associate with rural France, the average French peasant was more to be pitied than envied by their British counterparts.
Ladybirds often hibernate in clumps made up of millions of individuals.
Hummingbirds hibernate every single night, 365 times a year.
Female black and brown bears give birth during their hibernation season.
Female bats can wake up from hibernation pregnant - having been impregnated during their sleep.
Hibernatory behaviour wasn’t particular to the French. A British Medical Journal report from 1900 describes a similar winter routine among peasants from the Pskov region in north-west Russia:
‘At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread, of which an amount sufficient to last six months has providently been baked in the previous autumn. When the bread has been washed down with a draught of water, everyone goes to sleep again. The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself, goes out to see if the grass is growing, and by-and-by sets to work at summer tasks.’
Russians even had a name for their winter sleep – lotska.
A Japanese man survived 24 days in cold weather without food or water by inadvertently falling into a state of 'hibernation'.
Lungfish and salamander fish aestivate. That is, they hibernate in the summer.
Black bears have a way of recycling calcium into their bones while they hibernate so they wake up just as strong as when they nodded off.