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:
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.
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.
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.