Cold and heat adaptations in humans

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Cold and heat adaptations in humans are a part of the broad adaptability of Homo sapiens. Adaptations in humans can be physiological, genetic, or cultural, which allow people to live in a wide variety of climates. There has been a great deal of research done on developmental adjustment, acclimatization, and cultural practices, but less research on genetic adaptations to cold and heat temperatures.

The human body always works to remain in homeostasis. One form of homeostasis is thermoregulation. Body temperature varies in every individual, but the average internal temperature is 37.0 °C (98.6 °F).[1] Stress from extreme external temperature can cause the human body to shut down. Hypothermia can set in when the core temperature drops to 35 °C (95 °F).[2] Hyperthermia can set in when the core body temperature rises above 37.5-38.3 °C (99.5-100.9 °F).[3][4] These temperatures commonly result in mortality. Humans have adapted to living in climates where hypothermia and hyperthermia are common primarily through culture and technology, such as the use of clothing and shelter.[5]

Origin of cold and heat adaptations[edit]

Modern humans emerged from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago during a period of unstable climate, leading to a variety of new traits among the population.[6][5] Evidence suggests that modern culture may have originated then, too;[7] when modern humans spread into Europe, they outcompeted Neanderthals. Researchers hypothesize that this suggests early modern humans were more evolutionarily fit to live in various climates. [8] [9]This is supported in the variability selection hypothesis proposed by Richard Potts, which says that human adaptability came from environmental change over the long term.[10]

Ecogeographic rules[edit]

Bergmann’s rule states that endothermic animal subspecies living in colder climates have larger bodies than that of the subspecies living in warmer climates.[11] Individuals with larger bodies are better suited for colder climates because larger bodies produce more heat due to having more cells, and have a smaller surface area compared to smaller individuals, which reduces heat loss. A study by Frederick Foster and Mark Collard found that Bergmann’s rule can be applied to humans when the latitude and temperature between groups differ widely.[12]

Allen’s rule is a biological rule that says the limbs of endotherms are shorter in cold climates and longer in hot climates. Limb length affects the body’s surface area, which helps with thermoregulation. Shorter limbs help to conserve heat, while longer limbs help to dissipate heat.[13] Marshall T. Newman argues that this can be observed in Eskimo, who have shorter limbs than other people and are laterally built.[14]

Physiological adaptations[edit]

Origins of heat and cold adaptations can be explained by climatic adaptation; this can be traced back to the body’s responses to differing environments immediately after leaving Africa, such as extreme cold, humid heat, desert conditions, and high altitudes. [15]Ambient air temperature affects how much energy investment the human body must make; the temperature that requires the least amount of energy investment is 21 °C (69.8 °F).[5] The body controls its temperature through the hypothalamus. Thermoreceptors in the skin send signals to the hypothalamus, which indicate when vasodilation and vasoconstriction should occur.


The human body has two methods of thermogenesis, which produces heat to raise the core body temperature; the first is shivering, which occurs in an unclothed person when the ambient air temperature is under 25 °C (77 °F).[16] It is limited by the amount of glycogen available in the body;[5] the second is non-shivering, which occurs in brown adipose tissue.[17]

Population studies have shown that the San tribe of Southern Africa and the Sandawe of Eastern Africa have reduced shivering thermogenesis in the cold, and poor cold induced vasodilation in fingers and toes compared to that of Caucasians; this indicates the physiological adaptation of individuals that have left Africa for colder climates. During recent evolution (around 50,000 years ago), cold adaptation has selected for an increased metabolism and insulation (body fat). However, these traits cannot be effectively developed during a lifetime in cold conditions as selection takes place over many generations. Therefore, humans are forced to mainly rely on our behavioral and technological skills to live in and survive the cold [18]. [19]

There are three types of cold the body is adapted to: extreme cold, moderate cold, and night cold. Extreme cold is characterized by temperatures that are well below 0 °C (32 °F). Extreme cold favors individuals who have more body fat, especially around the sinuses, and narrow noses. Moderate cold is characterized by temperatures that fluctuate a few degrees above and below 0 °C (32 °F). Moderate cold favors individuals with slightly above average body fat (around a BMI of 24-25). Night cold is characterized by the extreme diurnal temperature variation seen in desert regions, and is associated with dual adaptations to heat and cold. Night cold favors individuals who are adapted to the heat, but whom also have a fast metabolism to warm them during the colder nights [20].


The only mechanism the human body has to cool itself is by sweat evaporation.[5] Sweating occurs when the ambient air temperatures is above 28 °C (82 °F) and the body fails to return to the normal internal temperature;[16] the evaporation of the sweat helps cool the blood beneath the skin. It is limited by the amount of water available in the body, which can cause dehydration.[5]

Humans adapted to heat early on. In Africa, the climate selected for traits that helped us stay cool. Also, we had physiological mechanisms that reduced the rate of metabolism and that modified the sensitivity of sweat glands to provide an adequate amount for cooldown without the individual becoming dehydrated [21]. [22]

There are two types of heat the body is adapted to, humid heat and dry heat, but the body has adapted to both in the same way. Humid heat is characterized by warmer temperatures with a high amount of water vapor in the air. Humid heat is dangerous as the moisture in the air prevents the evaporation of sweat. Dry heat is characterized by warmer temperatures with little to no water vapor in the air, such as desert conditions. Dry heat is also very dangerous as sweat will tend to evaporate extremely quickly, causing dehydration. Both humid heat and dry heat favor individuals with less fat and slightly lower body temperatures. [23]


When humans are exposed to certain climates for extended periods of time, physiological changes occur to help the individual adapt to hot or cold climates; this helps the body conserve energy.[17]


The Inuit have more blood flowing into their extremities, and at a hotter temperature, than people living in warmer climates. A 1960 study on the Alacaluf Indians shows that they have a resting metabolic rate 150 to 200 percent higher than the white controls used. Lapps do not have an increase in metabolic rate when sleeping, unlike non-acclimated people.[14] Australian aborigines undergo a similar process, where the body cools but the metabolic rate does not increase.[16]


Humans in Central Africa have been living in similar tropical climates for at least 40,000 years, which means that they have similar thermoregulatory systems.[5]

A study done on the Bantus of South Africa showed that Bantus have a lower sweat rate than that of acclimated and nonacclimated whites. A similar study done on Australian aborigines produced similar results, with aborigines having a much lower sweat rate than whites.[16]


Social adaptations enabled early modern humans to occupy environments with temperatures that were drastically different from that of Africa. (Potts 1998). Culture enabled humans to expand their range to areas that would otherwise be uninhabitable.[16]


Humans have been able to occupy areas of extreme cold through clothing, buildings, and manipulation of fire. Furnaces have further enabled the occupation of cold environments.[16][17]

Australian aborigines only wear genital coverings for clothes, but studies have shown that the warmth from the fires they build is enough to keep the body from fighting heat loss through shivering.[16] Eskimos use well-insulated houses that are designed to transfer heat from an energy source to the living area, which means that the average indoor temperature for coastal Eskimos is 10 to 20 °C (50-68 °F).[16]


Humans inhabit hot climates, both dry and humid, and have done so for thousands of years. Selective use of clothing and technological inventions such as air conditioning allows humans to thrive in hot climates.

One example is the Chaamba Arabs, who live in the Sahara Desert, they wear clothing that traps air in between skin and the clothes, preventing the high ambient air temperature from reaching the skin.[16]

Genetic adaptations[edit]

There has been very little research done in the genetics behind adaptations to heat and cold stress. Data suggests that certain parts of the human genome have only been selected for recently. Research on gene-culture interaction has been successful in linking agriculture and lactose tolerance. However, most evidence of links between culture and selection has not been proven.[24]


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