If you’re a road runner, triathlete or trail runner, you’ve likely read or know someone that’s read the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Even if you’re not an endurance junkie, it’s a fascinating story about human potential and worth checking out.
Although there’s no question McDougall took creative liberties in telling the story, he brought to light some fascinating information that, in my opinion, didn’t get the attention it deserved.
As the book title suggests, he makes the case that humans were born to run. That we don’t need fancy shoes, shorts, shirts, energy gels, or anything superfluous to run farther or for longer durations than most would think possible. It’s an alluring theory, and one based on some compelling scientific evidence.
Anthropological data supports the fact we’ve been foraging, scavenging, and hunting for a minimum of 2.6 million years. Initially we likely would have scavenged and foraged more than we hunted. However, we have archeological evidence that shows our human ancestors were consuming large animals like wildebeest and kudu 1.9 million years ago. This was before we had conceived of weapons like bows or even rudimentary spears.
“How did we manage to kill these animals without any tools or weapons? We ran them to death.”
How did we manage to kill these animals without any tools or weapons? We ran them to death. Literally. Or at least that’s one of the leading theories amongst the anthropological and evolutionary biology communities.
Drawing on the work and of many highly regarded researchers, in Born to Run McDougall suggests that, because of numerous physical characteristics still present in our bodies today, early humans were uniquely specialized and highly capable long-distance runners. Better in fact than any other mammal on the planet.
So, in the absence of the power and killing ability of a big cat, or the intelligence to build tools like a spear, we learned we could outlast just about any animal and run them to exhaustion.
Once fully exhausted, we simply walked up to the animal, and with a rock and a swift knock to the head, we had meat. This is called persistence hunting. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a rabbit hole worth descending.
“McDougall’s widely embraced conclusion was that our ability to run long distances was central to human evolution.”
McDougall’s widely embraced conclusion was that our ability to run long distances was central to human evolution. Running allowed us to eat more meat and, because of that, our brains grew, we got smarter, and evolved to where we are today.
But, here’s where it gets interesting. One of the researchers behind this theory, and one often quoted in McDougall’s book, is Dr. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University, an evolutionary biologist.
He not only believes that our unique physical characteristics and capabilities were crucial to our success as a species but that our abilities as hunters and gatherers, as much as runners, produced significant advancements in our cognitive abilities as well. In his book The Story of the Human Body he writes:
“Today few people know much about the animals and plants that live around them, but such knowledge used to be vital. Hunter-gatherers eat as many as a hundred different plant species, and their livelihoods depend on knowing in which season particular plants are available, where to find them in a large and complex landscape, and how to process them for consumption.
Hunting poses even greater cognitive challenges, especially for weak, slow hominins. Animals hide from predators, and since archaic humans couldn’t overpower their prey, early hunters had to rely on a combination of athleticism, wits, and naturalist know-how. A hunter has to predict how prey species behave in different conditions in order to find them, to get close enough to kill them, and then to track them when wounded.
To some extent, hunters use inductive skills to find and follow animals, using clues such as footprints, spoor, and other sights and smells. But tracking an animal requires deductive logic, forming hypotheses about what a pursued animal is likely to do and then interpreting clues to test predictions. The skills used to track an animal may underlie the origins of scientific thinking.”
In plain English, Dr. Lieberman is suggesting that hunting especially was such a taxing cognitive test that it was instrumental in the development of our brains, intellect, and therefore survival and expansion as a species.
So, although it’s easy to find information and research that definitively links the consumption of meat to the advancement of our brainpower, it appears that the activity (hunting) that led to that meat consumption was equally critical to our cognitive development.
The point being, McDougall popularized the evolutionary basis for our ability to run long distances. But to me, the more important question is, why did we bother running in the first place? We were hungry.
Running alone costs the body a lot of energy. These days, it’s perfectly normal to run for the sake of burning energy. In ancestral times, this was not the case. Everything we burned had to be replaced via foraging, scavenging, or hunting. Otherwise we’d eventually die of starvation. Every minute of energy output had to be weighed against the potential reward for doing so.
At some point in human history, we realized that the sustenance we were foraging didn’t sustain our energy stores the same as the meat we were scavenging. But, that scavenged meat was opportunistic. We didn’t have full control over that energy source. So, we took control and started hunting. Unsuccessfully at first, but we eventually got damned good at it.
In summary, what I’m trying to point out here is that we weren’t just born to run. The physical characteristics that allowed our ancestors to successfully persistence hunt were and still are unique to the human species. But we needed a good reason to expend that energy and test those physical abilities to their limit. And that was to hunt.
So, when you hear someone from the hunting community say, “We all come from hunters”, that’s not because they want everyone to start hunting. Nor is it to suggest that everything we humans once did should therefore be acceptable. Our history books are full of examples of past behaviors that should never be repeated.
What they are saying—whether they realize it or not—is that a lot of compelling evidence suggests that who we are today is deeply rooted in our hunting ancestry. And, as much as modern life couldn’t be more different than the hunter-gatherer lifestyles of early hominins, it’s hard to look anywhere in the health or fitness realm without seeing some reference to paleo, ancestral, natural, organic, or free range.
For many people, those terms resonate, and for good reason. But is it such a stretch to suggest hunting should be an equally respected part of that same discussion? If you look at the evidence and history of our species, it’s tough to dismiss the importance of hunting.