Persistence hunting was rewarding

Persistence hunting is a technique our ancestors may have used to hunt. But it also costs a lost of energy. New research investigates whether it is worth it


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Humans should have trouble hunting. We aren’t particularly fast or strong and we don’t have sharp teeth or claws. Nowadays we compensate for this with our technology. But not all of our ancestors were as well armed as us, yet they could still hunt quite successfully. Homo erectus had a diet dependent on meat, yet the pinnacle of their toolkit were handheld sharp rocks. So how did they hunt? Some speculate that they used persistence hunting.

See, we might not have a lot of biological advantages. But we have endurance. Thanks to a suite of evolutionary adaptations we can run for longer than most mammals. We might not be able to beat them in a sprint, but over time we can wear them down. New research has made this endurance hunting hypothesis more plausible by demonstrating that it would be quite rewarding. Although chasing down your prey would obviously take a lot of energy, it would more than give you enough food back.

Anatomical adaptations for persistence hunting

The more we learn about the evolution of the human body, the more advantages it seems to have for persistence hunting. 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.

But perhaps what’s even more interesting 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.

It’s also worth noting that most of those adaptations were present in the earlier species hypothesised to go persistence hunting. Homo erectus in particular, had a whole slew of such traits:

persistence

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

The rewards

Of course, scientists aren’t the only ones to realise just how great persistence hunting is. Some hunter-gatherers continue to use this method to hunt their prey. Notably the !Kung uses it to hunt large game (who use the famous click language, hence the random exclamation point in their name that means you’re supposed to click). However, it isn’t their favourite way to hunt. Using dogs, bows, and other ranged weapons. This raised the question: is persistence hunting that great after all?

To be fair, I can’t blame them. If I was given the choice to avoid running I would totally take it. But this raised the question: is persistence hunting that great after all? Perhaps it offers a very low rate of return, hence why it is so infrequently used.

So some researchers set out to answer this question, investigating the rate of return for persistence hunting amongst the !Kung. As I gave away earlier, they found that the behaviour was quite rewarding. Persistence hunting of large game like the local Kudu yielded returns between 26 – 69 times the cost of chasing it down. Even when the fact that this method requires several hunters and isn’t always successful was taken into account, estimates suggested a single successful Kudu hunt could feed a !Kung family for up to 12 days.

A kudu. Majestic, but lacks the endurance of man

Conclusion

All of this data does seem to indicate that persistence hunting is a viable strategy. But how significant was it in the course of human evolution? Many would argue that the adaptations of Homo erectus for the behaviour would indicate it was very important, but I’ve expressed some skepticism of this in the past. This research does help clear up some of my doubts, but there are still a few flaws. Namely, that the research was based off a fairly small sample size of !Kung hunts (only 10 or so attempts witnessed). It’s also fairly abstract, extrapolating all sorts of figures from the anthropolgoical data without tying them back into it. For example, they point out how long a family could be sustained by persistence hunting. Yet !Kung share food amongst their entire group, not just immediate family. Would this impact calculations?

Persistence hunting clearly does pay. And it seems like it was a viable strategy for our ancestors like Homo erectus. But I think a bit more work is needed before we start giving them running shoes.

References

Glaub, M. and Hall, C.A., 2017. Evolutionary Implications of Persistence Hunting: An Examination of Energy Return on Investment for! Kung Hunting. Human Ecology, pp.1-9.

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

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

Wiessner, P., 2002. Hunting, healing, and hxaro exchange: A long-term perspective on! Kung (Ju/’hoansi) large-game hunting. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23(6), pp.407-436.

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10 thoughts on “Persistence hunting was rewarding”

  1. Andre Salzmann says:

    My cousin, at age 14, could run down a young Springbok to catch it, give it a little brandy and crate it for transporting, before there were nets and helicopter to catch game with. As I remember, the San ran down game in relays, setting up a few men to relieve one another in the chase. If one wounds an animal, it will lie down as soon as it feels safe and is not chased. It becomes stiff after a while and will then be an easier chase.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      This is part of what I mean when I’m talking about the lack of real world applications in this data. These are all extra variables that could impact the efficacy of persistence hunting (maybe even make it more viable), yet were not really considered by this model.

  2. Sergio Catalán says:

    Hello Adam!

    I disagree with something in the post. You said “a large heel bone absorbs the impact as our foot comes back down” as an adaptation to RUN. I think it’s an adaptation for walking. When we walk we land with the heel but if we run BAREFOOT we land with our forefoot. Cushioned shoes made us land with our heel, but there’s another issue…

    Really, it’s an adaptation for both but I’d say it’s “more” for walking.

    Great and very interesting post!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I agree completely and is why I’ve expressed some skepticism about the ideas that endurance running was a big evolutionary driver (referenced towards the end of this post). We do have some adaptations for endurance running, but they seem to have just been adaptations for regular bipedalism that were co-opted by runners.

      1. meLo says:

        “I agree completely and is why I’ve expressed some skepticism about the ideas that endurance running ”

        What do you think of this post on Endurance running by a fellow Anthro Blogger?

        https://pumpkinperson.com/2017/03/19/man-the-athlete-by-race-realist/

        1. Adam Benton says:

          It seems to be a classic example of a little bit of knowledge being a dangerous thing. For example, it cites research claiming we got a lean body to help fuel a big brain (and that body also helps us run better). Which is the impression you’d get if you only read the abstract of the research they cite. Read more and you find that whilst the general trend in mammals is to trade body fat for brain size, humans buck this trend; seemingly disproving their claim. However, if you read further you find that humans may have been able to do so because of our more efficient locomotion, which they could perhaps cite as alternate evidence for their idea. But they don’t because they’ve only read the abstract.

  3. Hari K.R.V says:

    I think you have it backwards. Persistence running may have developed in our ancestors initially to survive in the vast open lands by outrunning predators. The energy required was most probably obtained by scavenging the large number of carcasses scattered everywhere and stealing kills of predators. Later, much later, after the predator densities were reduced significantly through hunting with weapons the same persistence running adaptation may have been used by some races to hunt. This will explain how a tough adaptation was achieved through necessity than by design.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      We do see hominins and predators co-existing in the same locale, so that’s not entirely unplausible. However, it’s worth noting – as some other commenters have brought up – that many of these adaptations were just bipedal changes co-opted by running. Whether they were being chased or chasing is interesting but a bit of an afterthought.

  4. clayton says:

    If by “persistence” hunting you mean running it down until it can run no more, and then kill it, then I’m not sure how else Homo Erectus types would hunt something. Unless ambushing a critter is considered different, but that probably led to many a long chase in many cases when something happened to go wrong, thus becoming a persistence hunt. The !Kung would do persistence hunting if they had to, but even their “simple” technology allows them to hunt in an easier fashion. But that “primitive” technology is ages ahead of H.Erectus’s sharp sticks and stones, so throughout their long sojourn here on Earth they evolved those endurance traits that we got to inherit. I guess those traits are ones that could be evolved out if we don’t use them from time to time. I know I haven’t run down any springboks lately.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      You’re not wrong, although I think we should be careful about making inferences based off “I can’t think of any alternative”. Even though I can’t think of many either.

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