Posts Tagged ‘persistence hunting’

In Christopher McDougal’s book “Born to Run” he tells of a small population in the Kalahari Desert of Africa that still practices a form of hunting known as persistence hunting.  The most recent search for people who still possess this skill of chasing an animal until it collapses began after Daniel Lieberman proposed the “Running Man” theory.

The “Running Man” theory states that human structure and physiology make endurance running very efficient.  We evolved, and therefore look, move and sweat (this is very important) the way we do because we’re designed as endurance running machines.  But why?  Since nature/evolution makes no mistakes in its design department, there has to be a reason that we are so suitable for long distance running.  Lieberman suggested this reason: Food – we are designed to chase antelope on the plains in the heat of the day until they collapse so we can eat them.  If that is true, and since our physiology has not changed in 2 million years, we should theoretically be able to outrun and catch an animal over a long distance, even today.  Lieberman was right, we do have the physiologic ability to chase an antelope until it collapses, however most of us are lacking the skill to do it.  And it turns out that the skill level is similar to playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata… sit down at a piano without first learning how to play the instrument, (and years of practice) and you get nowhere.  Trot off across the desert after an antelope expecting to eat it, without learning how to chase them and you’ll run in circles until you die of starvation.

Bernd Heinrich’s book “Why We Run,” which I highly recommend, lists several accounts of Native Americans chasing down everything from jackrabbits to deer, bison and pronghorn antelope (which are said to be capable of running over 60 mph for up to 7 miles!)

This BBC video follows a group of Kalahari Bushmen on a persistence hunt.  This is no quick trip to the grocery store to pick up a few things.  This particular chase lasts 8 hours!  The outcome is really defined by who collapses first.  In addition to being an excellent runner, this hunter has to be highly skilled at tracking, which includes thinking like the animal he’s chasing.  They don’t even mention the fact that there could be a role reversal with the possibility of an opportunistic predator sizing up the tiring human.  The whole situation is tremendously impressive, all the way down to the extreme respect the hunter has for the animal.

This hunting strategy is unlike any other mammalian predator.  Most predators rely on speed and/or surprise, which is why they have the same general body style.  The primary design focus for most if not all animals (excluding some of our domesticated friends) is food getting.  This is why a giraffe has a long neck, a hawk has sharp talons and a hooked beak, a blue whale has baleen etc., although Mother Nature gave some creatures a few upgrades to avoid being eaten, such as rabbit ears, porcupine quills and turtle shells.  Why would this food-getting-design not hold true for humans?  Our upright posture allows us to breathe independent of our running gait.  We sweat to cool ourselves without panting, while we’re still moving.  Our large brain allows us the mental aptitude to assess tracks and think about where our quarry went.

Our large brains also give us the ability to make everything from spears to space shuttles, which may be why despite having the ability to run for hours, so many people don’t like running.  We as a species are also good at and prefer being lazy.  It’s much easier to walk to the fridge in the next room than to walk all the way outside and run after an antelope for a few hours.  I think it comes down to the loss of our connection to the earth that began happening when we made the transition from nomadic people to farmers.  We have other people who raise and kill the animals then bring them to the store for us, just as there are people who put the potato chips and pretzels in their respective bags and ship them to the store for us.  If getting food was the reason we ran, we don’t have to run anymore.  But since we spent many thousands of years evolving as runners, our physiology works best (we’re most fit and healthy) if we do run.  There is new research showing that prolonged sitting is much worse for us than we originally thought.  Not only do we suffer the direct effects of sitting – not burning as many calories – but also our metabolism works differently, which has further deleterious effects.

But things are looking up!!  In recent decades, there has been a boost in the running movement, as many more people are becoming runners. For example, in 1989 there were about 4 million people (77% men, 23% women) who finished road races in the U.S.  That number doubled by 2004 (54% men, 46% women) and in 2009 was over 10 million and dominated by women (47% men, 53% women).  These statistics don’t account for the runners who don’t race.

Everyone has a different reason for running, there are probably even a few that lost a bet, but fortunately more and more people are embracing the human need/desire/drive/instinct(?) to run.


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