Most People seem to agree that we cannot and do not want to go back to the past, but the reason given is often wrong; that time has moved on and what was can never be again. The truth is that we cannot go back to what we never left. Our home is the earth, our time the Pleistocene Ice Ages. The past is the formula for our being.
(Paul Shepard)

Monday, 28 November 2011

Born to Run? Maybe!

A persistent problem

Persistence hunting is nicely outlined in this wikipedia article. and I’m going to send you to this article as well.

There is lots of noise in the primitive world about our supposed evolutionary inheritance of long distance chasing. The idea is that many of our distinctive features as homo sapiens are evolved traits for a particular form of hunting called persistence hunting where and animal is chased (or hounded!) over a long distance until it eventually succumbs to exhaustion and can be killed with hand spears or with bare hands. There is a famous youtube film showing !Kung bushmen in the Kalahari doing just that and several books on the subject.

I run and I even run in barefoot shoes I certainly don’t run marathons but have gone through periods where I was running a good 10 miles several times a week. Now winter is coming (not that you’d really notice) I am running more and more as the woods I prefer to play in become very slippery and I can’t access them in the early evening because its dark at 4pm. I really enjoy running and if I become convinced by the evidence am quite happy to integrate longer runs into my physical training.

My understanding of the evidence does not lend me to the conclusion that long distance running is a key factor in our evolutionary heritage, understanding why is important to me as I strive to live in an evolutionarily congruent manner. My understanding leads to me to believe that intermittent running but more importantly long distance walking are far more important. With some very violent physical activity on an occasional basis.

The moderns: As far as I know the !Kung are the only hunter gatherers known to engage in persistence hunting. The Tarahumara and other Native Amercans who engaged in long distance running were farming peoples and as such are not really valid for talking about evolutionary lifeways.

The !kung belong to a small group of humans who still exist as hunting peoples (I believe that now they cannot be called hunter gatherers but rather welfare recipients who occasionally poach game) the Bushmen were driven into the Kalahari by farming Africans and Europeans in the historical past and were considered extinct until the 1960’s or so. They live in an extreme environment in which game is scarce, persistence hunting in this context could easily be characterised as an extreme response to an extreme situation. To my knowledge no other African (or hunters from any continent) hunters take part in any form of persistence hunt.

As the !kung do not suffer from the diseases of civilisation (DoC) we could argue from their case that occasional long or extreme “cardio” sessions are not adverse to long term health. It may very well be that much of the carbholic behaviour of modern runners is responsible for some of the health problems associated with the sport.

The four leggeds; Dogs are modern day perisitence hunters, wolves, Dhole and African Hunting dogs all hunt primarily by the chase rather than by the ambush (like cats). Obviously they are not bipedal but it is worth remembering that there are animals who follow a similar hunting strategy (if persistence hunting is our evolved niche) in the same environment (Africa). We could expect to see some examples of convergant evolution. Our sweating bipedal hairless nature as often given as responses to chasing animals in the hot sun, responses African hunting dogs have not had to make.

There are many examples given of evolved human features that “show” that we or at least our ancestors ran on an occasional basis (long ligaments Achilles tendon nuchal ligament and some specialised diaphragm adaptations that allow us to breath out of step with our, er steps. The list is long and quite compelling, of course we are plantigrade, tailess bipeds which is very unusual (unique!) in evolution and we talk. So I’m not sure that these adaptations can be explained solely by a running niche. For example the near absence of the Achilles tendon in most apes (not gibbons) is often given as a proof of a running heritage as the Achilles tendon increases running effectiveness. Which sounds really plausible until you realise that apes are arboreal animals that live in dense forests and so we should expect them to be physiologically different from humans, they are also quadrupeds.

There were animals with human-like morphology that we know had very different lifestyles from erectus or even africanus. I would be more convinced if it were shown that Paranthropus a herbivorous bipedal animal lacked the physical features of habilis, erectus etc. I am not aware of any research or writing on this matter which is a shame as it would be an excellent argument for a running heritage if Paranthropus lacked those features.

I have outlined here why I am not convinced that humans have a running heritage or ecological niche. Mostly it is because I know of only one modern group of H/Gs that use it as a hunting strategy. I don’t think the unusual physical attributes of humans or human ancestors can only be explained by a running niche and more importantly I believe that there are ways to demonstrate these adaptations against other plantigrade bipeds rather than arboreal quadrupeds.

It is very common that people want to push their activity as far back into the past a possible, to give it great antiquity or even to make it “natural”. I believe that this is the main reason that persistence hunting is pushed as our ecological niche mostly by marathon and other long distance runners. If the !kung are looked at though they run at a far more relaxed pace than any modern runner they don’t gorge on energy packs and pasta and they don’t run every day. Most importantly they don’t wear nike trainers and run on concrete. If you want to run like your ancestors this should be remembered, entering and training for marathons (even barefoot ones) is not persistence hunting and certainly not what you were “born to do”.

As an after thought all hunter gatherers use projectile weapons the use of which can be traced back in the ephemeral fossil record to Heidelbergensis (my favourite!) if you want to find something you really were born to do throw a spear

“Born to throw”!!!!!