“Most mammals can sprint faster than humans — having four legs gives them the advantage. But when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal. Because we cool by sweating rather than panting, we can stay cool at speeds and distances that would overheat other animals. On a hot day, the two scientists wrote, a human could even outrun a horse in a 26.2-mile marathon.This seems a suspect conclusion to me. I’m neither an anthropologist nor a paleontologist, just someone reading this article quizzically and wondering aloud. My husband and I engaged in a discussion about it, and being the research maven he is, he attempted to find out whether a human could really outrun a horse. It seems that under the right circumstances, and over many years of trying, and with sixty plus people attempting the effort against a single horse who stopped for veterinary breaks, it can very occasionally be done with the human winning by a few minutes. Hmmm.... It’s hard to imagine early humans running miles and miles and miles with spears or some other weapon (since our teeth and fingernails would hardly bring down a big mammal) to feed the tribe. And how would one get the wildebeest back home anyway?
Why would evolution favor the distance runner? The prevailing theory is that endurance running allowed primitive humans to incorporate meat into their diet. They may have watched the sky for scavenging birds and then run long distances to reach a fresh kill and steal the meat from whatever animal was there first.
Other research suggests that before the development of slingshots or bows, early hunters engaged in persistence hunting, chasing an animal for hours until it overheated, making it easy to kill at close range. A 2006 report in the journal Current Anthropology documents persistence hunting among modern hunter-gatherers, including the Bushmen in Africa.”
Humans are good long distance runners, but is there really evidence that early humans evolved to be this way in order to bring down much faster and larger animals, and that those of us who could outrun an antelope lived longer and produced more children with those genes? Could it be that we evolved to be distance runners because those that could run long distances could also warn their tribes of coming dangers? Could it be that bipedalism and hairlessness had a side effect of distance running?
Could it be that early humans ate a much more plant-based, easily obtained diet, with insects and small, slow animals to supplement fruits, leaves, nuts and seeds and scavenged the kills of more fearsome predators as we were able, running for any other number of reasons?
~ Zoe Weil
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and Above All, Be Kind
Addendum: Since writing this post I heard an interview with an anthropologist (perhaps the person who’s been relied upon for the article’s expertise), and although I’m still not convinced, I’ll chalk this up to “not believing” until there’s more evidence.
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