Did endurance running drive human evolution?

Some argue endurance running was a key driving force of our evolution. I disagree


Physically, modern humans aren’t very impressive, lacking the sharp teeth, tough claws and all the other fun stuff that helps other animals survive in the wild. However, our body does have one thing going for it: endurance running. We can run surprisingly far for relatively little effort; even beating horses in extremely long distance races.

This unique ability has led some to argue that endurance running actually played a key role in human evolution; helping our ancestors capture prey by tiring them out. As such it was one of the key benefits that drove the development of bipedalism.

But does this idea have legs?

The evidence in favour

The key evidence that endurance running drove the evolution of bipedalism is how well adapted our bipedalism is for endurance running. It seems too finely tuned to be a coincidence.

We have a long, elastic achilles tendon that “stores” energy from step to step, meaning less effort is required. Our short toes help push off the ground with ease and a large heel bone absorbs the impact as our foot comes back down. Even the very shape of our body seems adapted for endurance running, minimising how much each step makes us rotate so it’s easier to keep our balance. The list of such adaptations goes on and on; and does seem quite compelling.

endurance running

Some of the features our ancestors developed to aid them in endurance running

But perhaps what’s even more compelling is just how unique this ability is. Very few animals have so many adaptations for endurance running. As such, if you made every mammal run a marathon, humans would actually come pretty close to first. Horses may be faster, but they have difficulty galloping for more than 15 minutes straight, and chimps can’t really run further than 100 meters before getting tired out.

As a result of this, using endurance running to hunt (known as persistence hunting) does actually work. Continuously chasing after an animal and wearing it down until you can get close enough to kill it is a viable strategy, and utilised by some modern hunter-gatherer groups today.

So the case seems pretty settled, human bipedalism evolved for endurance running!

The evidence against

If you search research into whether endurance running drove human evolution, a couple of names will keep cropping up: Bramble and Lieberman, the original two to formulate this theory. Why don’t more names appear? Because they haven’t actually convinced that many people. So why do so many experts reject what seems like an overwhelming array of data?

Because most of it is circumstantial.

All of those physical adaptations “for” endurance running also help us do many other things; such as carrying objects long distances and endurance walking. So whose to say that they evolved specifically for endurance running? These physical features may help us run a marathon faster than most mammals, but they also mean we can carry stuff with 1/3 less effort than it took our ancestors. Which one was the real “reason” for their evolution?

Of course, this is also circumstantial evidence against the idea endurance running drove our legs’ evolution. Sure, we can’t say that it was the cause, but there’s nothing there that says it wasn’t. Is there any evidence that’s more solid? Yes!

Imagine you’re chasing after a herd of animals; doing a little bit of persistence hunting. Which animals are going to get tired out first? The ones in the prime of life, or the young, sick or old? The latter, obviously. Yet when we look at archaeological evidence of what our ancestors were doing, we almost always find a focus on prime adults. This is not consistent with what you’d expect to see from persistence hunting.

The distribution of prey killed by Homo erectus at Olduvai Gorge, compared against what lions kill (right) and the natural population at the site (left)

The distribution of prey killed by Homo erectus at Olduvai Gorge, compared against what lions kill (right) and the natural population at the site (left)

Conclusion

Humans are good at endurance running, there’s no doubt about that. However, our legs are also well suited to walking long distances and carrying heavy objects. Teasing apart which was the key factor that drove the evolution of bipedalism is tricky. It might even be a nonsense question: multiple benefits may have been the cause. However, archaeological evidence shows that persistence hunting doesn’t seem to have been that common; suggesting endurance running wasn’t one of the primary benefits.

Or maybe we just didn’t use it to hunt. Perhaps Homo erectus settled feuds with marathons.

References

Bunn, H. T., & Pickering, T. R. (2010). Bovid mortality profiles in paleoecological context falsify hypotheses of endurance running–hunting and passive scavenging by early Pleistocene hominins. Quaternary Research,74(3), 395-404.

Crompton, R. H., Vereecke, E. E., & Thorpe, S. K. S. (2008). Locomotion and posture from the common hominoid ancestor to fully modern hominins, with special reference to the last common panin/hominin ancestor. Journal of Anatomy, 212(4), 501-543.

Liebenberg, L. (2006). Persistence hunting by modern hunter-gatherers. Current Anthropology, 47(6), 1017-1026.

Lieberman, D. E., & Bramble, D. M. (2007). The Evolution of Marathon Running. Sports medicine, 37(4-5), 288-290.

Related Articles

7 thoughts on “Did endurance running drive human evolution?”

  1. harikrv says:

    Perhaps it was more for running away from than running after!

  2. Abel Grosjean says:

    very interesting and controversial…yes it helps for running away, to manage and control a large area for food and water, to move with the seasons and to expand across Europe, Asia and then America. combined with good adaptability for food supplies…

  3. Andre Salzmann says:

    One wonders whether looking at Sapience’s running ability only, is not a too narrow a focus.

    Would it not be more realistic to analyze from a more general perspective and see where
    that leaves one?

    During the evolutionary process, our bodies reduced some abilities and developed others. If one looks at the chimps etc it is obvious that they are agile in ways Sapiens are not as a
    general rule:- Environmentally adapted ? Australopithecus, being a sort of in between
    ( the primates and Homo) were also physiologically different, rather distinctive but seemed
    to have survived well. Half tree climbers, half Savanna adapted and seemingly comfortable
    on hills and rocks in Africa? A little like present day baboons.

    A constant during all these millions of years though, seems to be agility, Agility in every
    possible physical sense?

    In a way, looking at all the agile capabilities of Sapiens, it also seems as though this bodily feature accumulated in us.Think of circus trapeze “artists”, ballerinas, karate, pole vaulters,
    tight rope walkers, gymnastics, hurdle jumping athletics, the ability to employ sticks and
    items like swords in warring, the ability to throw items, etc etc.

    Question is then whether running well is not just one integrated element of all of these capabilities, of agility as such. Obviously all capabilities together was the factor that led to survival in the wild during the different stages of evolution?

    Does this possibly also relate to the development of the “unnecessary” large brain of
    sapiens ?

  4. Lynniam says:

    Interesting that you should cite that particular article by Bunn and Pickering. Although the title claims to falsify hypotheses of endurance running, on closer reading of the article that doesn’t quite hold up. For one thing, only one of the two hypotheses was falsified, so it should definitely say hypothesis. Let’s look a little closer.

    There is, actually, a clear trend in the data towards older males, and distinctly away from juveniles. This makes more sense in the context of endurance running than the authors are willing to admit: in David Attenborough’s video documentary of a persistence hunt, he says that a bull is chosen because he will tire more quickly due to his heavy horns. It also makes sense not to invest all the energy of running down an animal in a juvenile that is smaller and has less meat.

    The authors also note an interesting aspect of the data which seems to indicate that the pregnant females as well as older males of the waterbuck were humans’ preferred prey. They attribute this to other tactics, but why would ambush hunters jumping out of trees onto animals care if they were pregnant or not? Ambush hunters, as premised by the article itself, kill whichever prey comes along first. We would not expect to see such a strongly selected age distribution. Also we would not expect the human form to have evolved away from tree-climbing and short-term speed and strength (any ape will easily beat you in a wrestling match).

    You know what is interesting about waterbuck though? The second paragraph of Wikipedia informs me that the waterbuck can not tolerate dehydration in hot weather, and thus inhabits areas close to sources of water. Seems like if humans were going to focus on running an animal to heat exhaustion, the fact that more of the data set consist of waterbuck than any other species is highly suggestive.

  5. marc verhaegen (@m_verhaegen) says:

    “The nowadays popular ideas about Pleistocene human ancestors running in open plains (‘endurance running’, ‘dogged pursuit of swifter animals’, ‘born to run’, ‘le singe coureur’, ‘Savannahstan’) are among the worst scientific hypotheses ever proposed. The surprising frequency and diversity of foot problems (e.g. hammertoes, hallux valgus and bunions, ingrown nails, heelspurs, athlete’s feet, corns and calluses—some of these due to wearing shoes) and the need to protect our feet with shoes prove that human feet are not made in the first place for running. Moreover, humans are physiologically ill-adapted to dry open milieus: “We have a water- and sodium-wasting cooling system of abundant sweat glands, totally unfit for a dry environment. Our maximal urine concentration is much too low for a savanna-dwelling mammal. We need much more water than other primates, and have to drink more often than savanna inhabitants, yet we cannot drink large quantities at a time” (Verhaegen 1987). This does not imply to say that human ancestors or relatives never lived on savannas, only that if they did, it was at the wetlands and rivers there. Apparently we evolved running—only lately, and only about half as fast as equids, bovids, felids or canids, and even slower than arboreal primates—in spite of our broad build, short toes and plantigrade feet, profuse sweating, and large subcutaneous fat tissues (a burden of ~10 kg in most people). Of course, healthy adult men can sometimes outrun ungulates (the usual ‘argument’ of conventional paleo-anthropologists) and provide a limited part of the calories for the group, but this dogged pursuit is largely confined to a few inland populations in East Africa today, is derived and probably very recent (less than a few thousands of years), and it requires a rather specialized technology with water bags, weapons and poisons. Quadrupedal chimps can hunt colobus monkeys and even eat them raw, but archaic Homo with their heavy bones (POS), very broad pelves and valgus knees, shorter legs and flat feet were much too slow on land. Humans have a remarkably poor olfaction (Gilad et al. 2003) and low muscularity, which make regular scavenging, and a fortiori hunting, unlikely.” (researchGate marc verhaegen 2013 Hum.Evol.28:237-266).

    1. Lynniam says:

      Lots of people go barefoot their whole lives. The “need” to protect feet with shoes is just a habit, and sometimes a very damaging one. The fact that our feet aren’t as well evolved for running as ostriches or wolves is only because we haven’t spent nearly as much time evolving to run as they have, it doesn’t mean we weren’t runners.

      What on earth else could our extreme sweat-based cooling system have evolved for, if not extended physical exertion in hot environments? Carrying a waterbag does not require advanced technology, and humans are uniquely capable of using our hands to carry things. Furthermore, the whole point of the persistence hunt is that it doesn’t require weapons or poisons, because it enables the hunter to walk right up to the exhausted animal by the end. Sure, weapons are convenient, and nearly all hunters today use them. But you have no basis at all for claiming that a hunting technique found in some of the oldest populations on Earth is “probably very recent.”

      Your chaotic anatomical descriptions are hard to make sense of. Humans have a broad build compared to apes? Sorry, we’re taller, not stockier. It makes sense in the context of running (not sprinting as apes do, but long-distance where it becomes an exercise in energy-efficiency and shedding excess heat) for us to become taller, more slender, better at evaporative cooling, with longer legs and shorter arms and fingers, and a torso, neck and head that rotate more freely and independently compared to an ape’s more muscle-bound build. Since our toes don’t primarily bear our weight, it makes sense for them to become shorter as well to increase the efficiency of each step.

      How do you explain our dramatically increased gluteus maximus and nuchal ligaments when the simplest reason for them would be that they helped us run better?

      Many vultures don’t rely on olfactory senses to scavenge, but are primarily visual. Humans are visual as well and also have an unusually well developed ability to picture activity they can’t see happening, or track by the power of deduction and figuring out an animal’s likely next move. It’s a better explanation than most for why we’ve ended up the way we are, with such big brains.

      1. marc verhaegen (@m_verhaegen) says:

        Lynnian, all your “objections” are answered in my paper, google e.g. “unproven assumptions so-called aquatic ape hypothesis”, please inform before saying something. Humans have climbing-feet (forests), which evolved into swimming-wading feet (swamp forests), which evolved into walking-feet (shallow water to terra firma), just compare the high & narrow feet of running species of ostriches or kangaroos (cursorial) to the flat feet of humans, grebes, penguins or flamingoes (wading or swimming). Prenatal chimps have more humanlike feet, which become hand-like near brith, according to prof.C.Coon: this suggests that our flat feet (long & adducted big-toes as in chimps before birth & australopithecines) are primitive for all African apes & humans (instead of “derived” as traditionally assumed). IOW, we run *in spite of* our flat feet: horses run twice as fast as we do.

Leave your filthy monkey comments here.

More in Evolution of our body
Top human evolution discoveries expected in 2015

What will be the top human evolution discoveries of 2015? EvoAnth makes some predictions.

Close