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A cave art prehistoric hunting scene. Source: Maxim Chuev/Adobe Stock

New Study Suggests Humans Developed Endurance by Running After Prey


Over the course of its long evolutionary history,  Homo sapiens (modern humans) gradually developed the ability to run faster and to continue running for longer and longer periods of time without stopping. In the modern age we associate these capacities with success in athletic competition, but from an evolutionary perspective they must somehow be related to survival needs in order to be explained.

In an article just published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, archaeologist Eugene Morin from Trent University in Ontario and behavioral ecologist Bruce Winterhalder from the University of California-Davis argue that endurance running capacity developed in humans because it helped ensure greater success in hunting.

According to the findings of this new study, ancient humans who had the stamina to chase their prey down over long distances would be able to kill more animals and secure more essential calories and protein for themselves, their families and their groups. Over time evolution would have therefore favored a greater capacity for running endurance, ensuring steady and gradual improvements in the general human ability to run fast and far.

What this means is that the most successful endurance athletes today would have been the cream of the crop as hunters if they’d lived several hundred thousand years ago, when their skills would have had incredible practical value.

Hunting could involve marathon distance running and more in pursuit of prey. (de Art/Adobe Stock)

Hunting could involve marathon distance running and more in pursuit of prey. (de Art/Adobe Stock)

Running Fast and Far for Survival

Many anthropologists and evolutionary biologists subscribe to the idea that the earliest human ancestors living in Africa relied on endurance running to ensure hunting success. They point to unique human features such as our bouncy arched feet, slow-twitch muscle fibers that conserve energy, heat-shedding skin and extreme capacity to sweat as examples of features that evolved to guarantee our efficiency as long-distance runners.

Other scientists are skeptical of this thesis, however, based on the fact that running burns so many more calories than walking. A lot of running would have boosted people’s caloric needs substantially, they claim, which suggests ancient indigenous hunters who tried to run after the herds would have worn themselves out before ever catching up.

It is of course impossible to examine the hunting activities of ancient  Homo sapiens groups, or of the hominin species that preceded them, directly. But the researchers involved in the new study did have access to the next best thing, which was bountiful ethnographic literature detailing every aspect of the lives and lifestyles of more contemporary indigenous peoples. These written accounts came from explorers, missionaries, travelers and anthropologists who visited or lived with indigenous groups in Asia, Africa, the Americas and the far north, from the 16th through the 21st centuries.

With the assistance of colleagues and students, study co-authors Eugene Morin and Bruce Winterhalder spent five long years pouring over more than 8,000 ethnographic texts spanning 500 years of world history. At the end of this laborious process, the researchers were able to document 391 reports that described indigenous hunting parties chasing down prey over impressive distances, ultimately catching up with the herds after they had slowed down or stopped due to exhaustion. Even though the humans couldn’t run as fast as the animals, they were still able to gain an advantage by demonstrating more endurance.

“It’s probably a lot more ubiquitous than we understood,” Dr. Winterhalder told the online publication Sciencein reference to the practice that is known in academic circles as persistence hunting. “When it does work, it’s just as good, or maybe better, than other techniques.”

The various reports suggested that in general, hunting parties that ran down herds were more efficient at catching prey than those that relied on stealthy stalking techniques (i.e., staying quiet and sneaking up on herds when they were resting or feeding). And while running does use a lot more energy than walking, the reports seem to indicate that hunting parties on the run were able to find and kill prey quickly enough to negate this disadvantage.

Interestingly, the most ubiquitous persistence hunters were modern Native Americans. Out of 141 western North American indigenous groups surveyed by researchers from the University of California-Berkely in the 1930s and 1940s, 114 of them (81%) reported practicing some type of persistence hunting.

Let the Debate Commence …

While persistence hunting was apparently more common in the past than realized, it was still not the preferred or most popular method of hunting among indigenous hunter-gatherer groups.

In the  Science article discussing this new study, Cara Wall-Scheffler, a biological anthropologist from Seattle Pacific University, noted that the number of examples of persistence hunting found in the ethnographic record was still relatively small (just 391 examples in 8,000 texts). Because of this, she doubts the practice offered much of a collective evolutionary advantage.

 “Selection acting every single day, everywhere, is more powerful, and persistence running is definitely not an everyday occurrence,” she explained. “This paper actually doubles down with how unusual [it] is.”

Drs. Morin and Winterhalder acknowledge that endurance running was just one tool in the ancient hunters’ arsenal. They also made sharp projectile weapons that could be propelled at high speeds across distances, made different types of traps and snares, organized communal hunts, and supplemented their diets with plants and fish and other forms of sea life when the herds were scarce.

Nevertheless, the researchers argue that if endurance running was a useful hunting skill—as it clearly was— it is reasonable to relate the development of such a capacity to evolutionary forces.

“Nobody else has come up with any other explanation for why humans evolved to run long distances,” pointed out Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist from Harvard University who supports the researchers’ thesis, in an interview with  Science.

It is certainly possible that persistence hunting was more common among prehistoric people than it was among modern indigenous groups. If that is the case, then literature that details the practices of the latter might not reveal the whole story.

Top image: A cave art prehistoric hunting scene. Source: Maxim Chuev/Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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