Long-Distance Running May Have Evolved to Help Humans Chase Prey to Exhaustion

Scientists found hundreds of recent examples from around the globe of hunters using “endurance pursuits” to tire out their prey, furthering the debate over the hunting techniqueRunners climbing a sand dune

Early humans may have employed long-distance running as a hunting strategy more often than thought, a new study finds.

Researchers have previously proposed what’s known as the endurance pursuit hypothesis—the theory that human bodies evolved to chase down prey on foot until the other animal can’t run anymore. But this idea has been the subject of debate, with skeptics bringing two main arguments against it: that the hunting strategy would be too exhausting and that it isn’t often seen in more modern foraging cultures.

In the new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, researchers examined each of these critiques and found support for the endurance pursuit hypothesis. The team scoured ethnographic records from recent history, identifying almost 400 cases of long-distance running used for hunting around the world, and they used computer modeling to demonstrate that in terms of energy expenditure, running can be more efficient than walking for pursuing prey.

The findings indicate endurance running would have been a viable hunting technique for our ancestors, the study authors write.

“I think our paper makes a very strong case for its importance in the past,” Eugene Morin, a co-author of the study and evolutionary anthropologist at Trent University in Canada, tells New Scientist’s Michael Le Page. “Something that was thought to be marginal is now shown to be a common strategy worldwide.”

Other researchers have different interpretations of how broadly the technique has been used.“Maybe persistence hunting was part of the mix, but I doubt it was a big part,” Scott Simpson, a paleoanthropologist at Case Western Reserve University who did not contribute to the findings, says to Science’s Kermit Pattison.

While humans lack the top-end sprinting speed of some other predators, we hold an advantage when it comes to endurance. Compared to most mammals, humans have more slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are energy efficient when running long distances. We’re also good at avoiding overheating, since our high number of eccrine glands and bare skin allow us to sweat copious amounts to cool off. Long legs, Achilles tendons, arched feet and large, stress-bearing joints in our legs also contribute to our distance-running prowess.

Such traits make humans well-suited to persistence hunting as a strategy for finding food, researchers have argued. They’ve theorized that hunters could have employed distance running to push prey to the point of overheating in hot weather. Research has found evidence of modern hunters using endurance pursuit in Botswana, the American Southwest and Australia.

Other scientists have said that early humans did not use long-distance pursuits frequently enough for the technique to have affected our evolution. Such an activity was “extremely rare,” Cara Wall-Scheffler, a biological anthropologist at Seattle Pacific University who did not contribute to the study, wrote in the Conversation earlier this month. “Could such a rare and unusual form of locomotion have had a strong enough impact to select for the suite of adaptive traits that make humans such excellent endurance athletes today?”

For the new paper, the researchers combed through more than 8,000 ethnohistorical and ethnographic documents, finding 391 descriptions of persistence hunting between 1500 and 2020. This set of evidence is more than an order of magnitude larger than previous findings, the study authors write.Their examples of persistence hunting are wide-ranging. In the 16th century, people ran after and tired out deer in present-day Texas and northern Mexico. Hunters repeatedly chased stags to the point of exhaustion in 19th-century Newfoundland, Canada, and people would pursue antelope during the hottest part of the day in 1950s Chad. In Hawaii during the 1800s, hunters would chase herds of goats, falling behind as the goats ran and catching up while the animals rested. The humans would win “every time.”

Through modeling, the researchers also calculated the energy gained and lost by pursuing various sizes of prey at different speeds, and they found that faster-paced, endurance chases could often be more beneficial than slower hunts.

“It’s hard to argue with the results of their analysis, which clearly support other anatomical, physiological, archaeological and genetic evidence that humans evolved to run long distances to hunt,” Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University and a proponent of the endurance pursuit hypothesis who was not involved in the new research, tells New Scientist.

Wall-Scheffler tells Science that while the new findings add more examples of persistence hunting, they confirm the practice was rare—and as a result, she adds, it might not have played a large role in human evolution

“This paper actually doubles down with how unusual [it] is,” she tells the publication.

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