Australia is known as the hottest and driest continent on Earth & home to what we believe is the oldest population of humans on the planet. It is reasonable to assume that we are quite resistant to extreme heat and able to cope much better compared to non Indigenous people. Some people also assume that we are not so well adjusted when it comes to handling cold weather.

So is it true? Do white people with their European ancestry handle the cold better than Aboriginals? Well back in 1958 the American Physiological Society conducted a study on a group of Pitjantjatjara mob to find out just that and what they found shocked them. The controlled study was relatively simple. It involved measuring the response of the human body while sleeping without protection on a cold desert night. The study then compared Europeans exposed to the exact same conditions.

The remote APY lands

During the study, the European subjects responded as expected. Their bodies began to shiver and their metabolism began to increase in an attempt to maintain their core body temperature. During this time, the subjects were observed as being restless and unable to sleep due to the near freezing desert temperatures. As mentioned, this response was expected but the response of the Pitjantjatjara subjects was something the scientists had never witnessed before among humans.

For the Pitjantjatjara mob, they slept soundly through the night. There was no excessive shivering or restlessness that was witnessed among the white control group. The scientists discovered that our people have a unique ability (a genetic adaption) that allows us to handle the cold better than any other people on the planet. The scientist also discovered that our metabolism actually dropped when exposed to colder temperatures. This metabolic decrease is similar to the cold response found among arctic mammals.

Aboriginal response to cold
Figure 3: Metabolism of Central desert Aboriginal population and white European controls sleeping naked, outside in temperatures between 10 – 1 degrees. Redrawn from Scholander, et al. (1958).

So what do you think about the results? Let us know in the comments below. I know as I was writing this I was thinking of a lot of mob who can’t stand the heat or cold. Well at least we know that if the time comes, we will have a genetic advantage over the rest of the world. We lived through an ice age before and perhaps we may have to do it again.

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