How humans acquired their unique ability for endurance racing

Today's endurance races have their origins in hunting.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
13 May 2024 Monday 05:14
7 Reads
How humans acquired their unique ability for endurance racing

Today's endurance races have their origins in hunting. Running after prey until it was exhausted was a strategy as efficient as any other to obtain food, to such an extent that hunter-gatherer communities used it regularly until the beginning of the 20th century. These findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, suggest that the marathons we run today are the result of an evolutionary advantage that began to develop two million years ago.

“Unlike other mammals, including primates such as chimpanzees, humans can sweat profusely and the muscles of their lower limbs have evolved for resistance rather than power,” Eugène Morin, an anthropologist at the University, explains in an email to La Vanguardia. Trent University, in Canada. The combination of sweating, which allows us to evacuate body heat better than any other mammal, and the high density of fatigue-resistant muscle fibers in the legs, gives human beings the option of hunting much faster prey out of exhaustion. that they.

So much so that a hypothesis proposed 40 years ago suggests that this usefulness for hunting was decisive in the development of human resistance. The idea has evidence to support it, but it has still always faced criticism for its apparent inefficiency in obtaining food. Running requires a lot of energy, so exhausting prey before catching it may seem more costly than ambushing or hunting in groups. Morin's findings dismantle the argument: “Resistance chases can be as profitable or more profitable than other hunting methods,” he asserts.

The confidence that comes from his statement is justified by the results provided by the mathematical model that he has developed together with Bruce Winterhalder, also an anthropologist at the University of California, in the United States. “We have modeled a range of scenarios in which we have varied the size of the prey, the pace of the chase and the distance covered with respect to the time used,” he explains. When the combination of factors is optimal, hunting while running has a very beneficial energy balance.

The faster the running pace, the shorter the distance the hunter usually travels. The chase time also decreases, so the energy obtained from food can be much higher than that expended in the race. This generality, however, has exceptions and depends on the type of prey being pursued. In some cases a high pace can lead to a greater hunting distance, even reducing the chase time.

The ideal scenario for this practice, according to researchers, is the hunting of a medium or large-sized animal (such as a deer or elk) that is physically depleted. If the chase takes place on unstable terrain and on hot days, the human being's ability to sweat and muscular endurance take full advantage. Still, the strategy is also viable in cool environments.

The findings agree with observations that travelers, missionaries and ethnologists have documented over the years. Researchers have collected 391 reports that, since the year 1500, describe this way of hunting, which makes the pursuit of resistance a relatively common strategy. Plus, it's global. The records are distributed in 277 locations around the world (except Antarctica), and in a wide variety of environments: from plains to forests, including snowy areas.

“The practice was still common in the early 20th century in many places around the world. More recently, after about 1950, there are only about a dozen known sites despite the breadth of the ethnographic literature. The spread of firearms, dogs and horses, and colonial disruptions of traditional societies have contributed to the decline of the practice,” summarizes Morin.

The evidence collected by the researchers adds to the rest of the evidence that supports the hypothesis that human resistance was an evolutionary advantage for hunting. For example, it was two million years ago when our ancestors began to feed on large animals, coinciding with the first archaeological records that reflect physical characteristics compatible with prolonged efforts: longer legs, stronger joints, greater space for the gluteus and the Achilles tendon and the appearance of the bridge on the sole of the foot.

However, definitively proving that this hunting strategy originated two million years ago is still some way off. At the moment, scientists are working on new research that will precisely reveal the most favorable contexts for endurance hunting, the motivations for carrying it out and the most suitable times of year for it.