If you’re like me and live in a place where mosquito swarms are a regular part of life outside, you’ve probably wondered while being eaten alive – how the heck did people deal with mosquitoes back in the day?
I was curious to find out which traditional insect repellant strategies are most effective and also which methods are easy to apply in modern times.
In general early humans dealt with mosquitoes by staying close to campfires and burning aromatic plants while avoiding buggy areas. If insects were biting, they would cover their skin with mud or oils to provide a physical barrier that insect bites cannot penetrate.
Overall I found 7 different ways that people dealt with mosquitos and each of these methods has their own benefits and weaknesses, so it’s useful to know them all.
Let’s go deeper and explore these 7 natural ways to deal with mosquitoes, starting with the most universally applicable:
1. Covering The Skin With Oils Or Mud
When you’re out in buggy areas, the best way to keep yourself protected from mosquitoes is by covering your skin with a physical barrier like oil or mud.
The benefit of this method is that you really can go into the buggiest places on earth and wherever your skin is covered, you won’t get bites!
The downside is that you have to literally cover yourself from head to toe with substances that most people simply don’t want to use (especially if you’re just going for a 3 hour hike in the woods).
Traditionally, people would use whatever protective materials they had available in their local environment including:
- Bear or other animal fats
- Fish oils
- Plant oils (like coconut)
As a bonus you can infuse these substances with aromatic mosquito repellent herbs, however it’s important to realize the most important thing is covering your skin to physically prevent mosquitoes from biting.
Now I realize some of these substances might sound pretty disgusting, but it just goes to show how effective this method truly is. People simply would not go to the extreme of lathering up with bear fat if it wasn’t incredibly effective.
Luckily, coconut oil is actually pretty nice to put on your skin!
So how does coconut oil prevent mosquito bites?
Rubbing coconut oil on your skin creates a light coating that mosquitoes can’t bite through. Coconut oil also contains specific fatty compounds that have been shown to have more insect repellent strength than DEET. (study)
Most natural insect repellents are made from aromatic plants like citronella or lavendar, and the effects are commonly attributed to the scent of those plants.
In reality it’s not the smell that repels mosquitoes, so just spraying a little bit on your clothes won’t make much difference. You have to actually cover your skin with oil, which physically prevents mosquitos & other insects from biting you.
(Aromatic mosquito repellent plants are even more useful in a different strategy for dealing with insects, so keep reading if you’re interested in that!)
2. Avoiding Insect Prone Areas
Mosquitoes tend to gather and breed in wet areas with standing water that lack strong winds, so avoiding these areas is undoubtedly one of the most important strategies that early humans used for dealing with mosquitos.
One benefit of living a nomadic lifestyle is that if the environment gets too uncomfortable, you can simply go somewhere else.
In our comfortable modern lifestyles, it can be difficult to comprehend just how deeply our early human ancestors really understood the patterns of their land.
People knew from generational experience which areas had the most bugs during specific seasons & weather patterns, and these patterns are reflected in the culture and lifestyle of those people.
For example: here in Nova Scotia, the local Miꞌkmaq lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, with winters spent hunting moose in frozen inland forests.
These same forests during spring & summer can be incredibly swarmed with mosquitoes & black flies. But rather than staying in the forest, the people living there would travel along rivers to the coast to fish & hunt marine mammals.
It’s likely that at least one of the benefits of being coastal during the summertime was having less insect pressure with a nice coastal breeze.
It’s a brilliant example of how indigenous knowledge can help people thrive in places that may seem entirely unbearable to modern humans.
This is potentially also a driving factor in why human cultures sometimes choose to live in relatively inhospitable environments like mountaintops and deserts.
Of course even with avoiding the buggy areas, you never totally escape the insects, so luckily there are more ways to deal with mosquitoes.
3. Campfires And Burning Aromatic Plants
As every experienced camper knows, almost nothing offers better mosquito protection than sitting close to a nice burning campfire.
For early humans, fire was an essential part of daily life for cooking food, as protection from lions, cold nights, and with the added benefit of significantly improved comfort from insects.
So how does fire protect against mosquitos?
Mosquitoes are highly susceptible to forces that dry out the environment and reduce humidity. The smoky environment provides a localized camouflage that makes it harder for mosquitoes to find us. (study)
Fire is also where we find the real usefulness of aromatic mosquito repellent plants.
Pretty much any aromatic plant with non-toxic vapors will have mosquito repellent properties when burned, so it’s all about using whatever plants are locally available.
17 Plants That Repel Mosquitoes:
- Lemon Balm
- Lemon Verbena
The big mistake people make with these plants is thinking that simply having some citronella, lavender, or lemon balm growing in a pot on their back deck is going to keep mosquitos away… this is totally not true!
However by burning aromatic mosquito repellent plants on a fire, you activate and release their properties into the air, which does in fact provide excellent protection against mosquitoes.
The benefit of using fire is that it’s so darn easy, and when you’re living off the land you probably already have a fire going so you might as well use it for mosquitos.
4. Eating A Natural Diet
Many people report that eating a diet high in garlic, onions & beans will somehow make you less attractive to mosquitos.
Among outdoor enthusiasts, this same benefit is often attributed to eating a natural diet that includes lots of native plants & herbs, which of course all early humans would have been doing.
The general idea is that eating a natural diet makes you smell more like you belong in the native environment.
So how does diet affect mosquito bites?
The foods you eat can affect the body’s chemistry which gets secreted through your skin and therefore make you more or less attractive to mosquitoes.
Foods that reportedly make you more attractive to mosquitoes include:
Foods that are reported to make us less attractive to mosquitoes include:
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Native plants & herbs
While it’s extremely likely that there is a relationship between diet and mosquito bites, these effects are probably fairly minimal compared to other strategies we could implement.
Diet is an extremely complex area to study, so there’s a lot we just don’t know about how it all works.
My personal view is that you shouldn’t expect diet changes to protect you from mosquitoes. Just eat healthy and eat what works for YOU!
You’ll notice a lot of foods that are reported to attract mosquitos are simply not that great for us anyways (like processed sugar).
And many foods that are reported to repel mosquitoes tend to be great things to include in your diet regardless of whether it keeps the bugs away.
5. Wearing Mosquito-Proof Clothing
As mentioned in #1, one of the best ways to protect against mosquito bites is by having a physical barrier covering your skin. This also includes the clothing you wear!
One of the benefits of wearing clothes made from animal skins is that mosquitoes can’t bite through tanned leather.
Using light and loose fitting clothes made from ungulate skins like deer would provide fantastic protection from mosquitoes without being too hot in summertime.
We can easily apply this same protection in modern times by being more conscious of our clothing choices for outdoor adventures.
Which clothes protect best against mosquito bites?
Any of the following materials will give you the most protection from mosquitoes:
Additionally, the style and color of clothing can actually make a big difference too.
Loose fitting clothes help to keep insects away from your skin. In general – the worst clothing to wear for mosquito protection is tight fitting yoga pants made of spandex or polyester.
Light colors are also harder for mosquitos to see, so staying away from all black or dark outfits can help you blend in more easily.
I recommend light colored earth tones that match the lightest greens and browns in your landscape.
6. Acquired Itch Resistance
It’s commonly reported that people who get bit often by mosquitoes gradually have less severe reactions.
Because of this, many outdoor enthusiasts swear by the notion of just letting mosquitoes bite you until your body adapts so they don’t itch any more.
I’ve tested this theory out and as far as I can tell this does appear to be true!
However, this is still probably not great advice if you live somewhere that has insect-borne diseases like malaria.
It does however point out something important about how early humans dealt with mosquitoes… They probably just got used to the bites, so it didn’t bother them as much.
Always remember that much of the challenge with mosquitoes is psychological. Eventually you just get used to having them around and realize it isn’t that big of a deal.
The fact is that our early ancestors absolutely got bit by mosquitoes, and because of their constant immersion in nature throughout their entire life, it probably happened more often than any of us currently experience.
We have to accept that no method will ever completely protect from the occasional mosquito bite, but our physical and emotional reactions can be retrained to help us feel more comfortable.
7. Mosquito Resistant Genetics
For awhile now researchers have been trying to tackle the big question behind mosquito bites: Why do mosquitoes bite some people more than others?
It’s been shown that everyone emits their own unique profile of chemicals through their skin that either attracts mosquitoes or repels them through their sense of smell. (Study)
Some of these chemicals & scent profiles are linked to genetics, for example:
- There are references stating that people with O+ blood get bitten more frequently, and people with O- blood rarely get bitten by mosquitoes.
- Many health conditions with a genetic component have also been linked to mosquito susceptibility like diabetes & blood pressure.
Considering that our genetics can affect how much we sweat, how we process sugar and store fat, it’s pretty clear that our genes do in fact play a role here.
It’s possible that certain human populations were simply more resistant to mosquitoes and therefore able to tolerate living in more buggy environments than others.
While we can’t change our genetics, there’s a lot of fascinating research being done in epigenetics showing how behavior & environmental factors can influence which genes are being expressed.
Personal fitness & lifestyle habits could affect the activation & suppression of certain genes that correlate with mosquito bites, but it’s still way too early to say exactly how this all factors in.
For now we’ll just have to stick with the more direct and tested methods of protecting ourselves.
As it turns out, my mom is one of those people who just always seems to get bit by mosquitoes. She tried everything from bug sprays, to surrounding herself with herbs and making lemon balm necklaces.
The thing that finally worked for her was something humans have been doing for thousands of years!
The Best All Natural DIY Method To Avoid Mosquito Bites
One day my mom started telling me about this new mosquito repellant she was using that actually worked! It was pretty much a miracle because she always got bit way more than other people, even when she used bug spray.
When I investigated exactly what the ingredients were, it turns out the product was essentially just mineral oil. She would put a light coating of this oil on any exposed skin and suddenly the mosquitoes stopped biting!
As I investigated deeper, I realized it’s possible to use plain old natural coconut oil to accomplish this same result.
In fact, humans have been doing this for thousands of years with great results, using their own local variations based on whatever oils and substances they have available locally.
If you only take one thing from this article, I hope you realize that it’s completely not necessary to use chemical bug sprays or expensively packaged mosquito repellents.
The simplest thing is to rub coconut oil on your skin.
If you really want to get fancy, you can put in some herbs like lavender or other mint family herbs and let it infuse for a few weeks.
- Coconut oil
- Infuse with mosquito repellent plants
- Apply a coating to exposed skin to avoid bites
Coconut oil is even good for your skin. It’s frequently used in beauty products. It won’t clog your pores so it’s safe to use all over your body.
Now you’re all caught up on the most effective methods for dealing with mosquitoes. I hope this helps you enjoy your next outdoor adventure just a little bit more!