Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
21 Apr

Did Humans Evolve to Be Long-Distance Runners?

Thanks to the several readers who have pointed out this recent article in SEED Magazine which once again dredges up the tired argument that humans evolved to be long-distance runners. Most of you know by now that I totally disagree with that theory. I say humans evolved to be excellent slow movers (walk, jog, migrate, forage, crawl, scramble, etc) burning mostly fat. We also developed into pretty decent short sprinters, but we did NOT evolve to run long distances. Sure, early humans were all-around fit enough and capable of the occasional long easy jaunt after an animal, but to think that natural selection redesigned our simian shapes to run the Boston Marathon is, in my opinion, ludicrous.

We’ve hashed this out a bunch in the past when a Men’s Health magazine article a few years ago quoted Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a leading proponent of the “ER” (endurance running) hypothesis as suggesting that early humans would run an animal to death by chasing it for for 5 or 10 miles until it died of heat stroke. They call it persistence hunting. I find the idea – that this behavior led to some specialized human evolution as distance runners – to be preposterous on several levels. First, much of the fossil record suggests early humans were scavengers and lived pretty well off road kill until they started employing weapons a few hundred thousand years ago. No real need to run long distances when you can walk, hide, climb, sprint and crawl to scavenge. Secondly, it’s one thing to track and stalk an animal (using your superior intelligence) with walking, occasional jogging and a few sprints here and there. That’s a primarily fat-burning pursuit and it’s probably how our ancestors actually hunted. But once you have to shift into glucose/glycogen mode to run aggressively for long distances, it’s a whole different ballgame and you encounter a big problem. Run out of glycogen chasing a beast too long in the heat and you become exhausted yourself. If you are lucky enough to bag the beast, at least you get to eat now (albeit mostly protein and fats which won’t completely restore your glycogen reserves). But fail in your mission and your sorry, fatigued, glycogen-depleted butt is now vulnerable to becoming some other beast’s dinner. ER makes no sense to me from an evolutionary perspective.

So now comes Lieberman again in this latest study in The Journal of Experimental Biology (abstract) that compared the mechanical forces in the feet and the metabolic costs of generating these forces to arrive at the following conclusion: “The increased mechanical cost associated with long toes in running suggests that modern human forefoot proportions might have been selected for in the context of the evolution of endurance running.” He basically argues that humans evolved to have shorter toes than our simian relatives because longer-toed relatives were selected out. That same theory would therefore imply that longer-toed ancestors died off at a greater rate as a result of needing an average of a tiny bit more fuel to run after prey for long distances? Hmmm. I’m not buying it and I’m surprised that the JEB bought it. Since the study concluded that there is no difference in cost between long toes and short toes when walking, I could even use that data to shore up my theory that we evolved to be efficient walkers who could sprint when required and who were fit enough to run after the occasional mastodon if it made sense. And then there’s this: If men did most of the hunting, how is it that women are better suited to ultra running than men (compared to shorter running events) and a modern female like Ann Trason can beat most men today straight up in every ultra running event she enters? (Granted, she could be an outlier.)

Of course, the ER proponents typically cite the Tarahumara as current examples of the human genetic propensity to run long distances. This tribe of indigenous Mexican people are known for their prowess in running great distances (often 50-80 miles in a day) and for their participation in occasional persistence hunting, where they literally chase down deer until it is so exhausted they can walk up to it and kill it. But other scientists suggest that the Tarahumara’s endurance is based more on a cultural adaptation (no cars, no phones, no mail service), training, diet and conditioning than it is on heredity. Some 80% of their diet is complex carbs from grains and beans. That goes back to my primary argument as to why we did NOT evolve to be distance runners. Until we had a ready source of reliable high-carb fuel, made available through agriculture, any sort of regular distance running (chronic cardio) was a natural selection killer. Eating grains every day at every meal certainly replenishes the glycogen stores, so you can go out and do it again tomorrow. But why?

Most anthropologists would agree we didn’t evolve to swim. We learned how to make our way through water without drowning and we do it pretty effectively for a land mammal. That doesn’t make it natural or adaptive. Similarly, I say we learned to run marathons when we had the luxury of unlimited carbohydrates. That doesn’t make it adaptive or natural.

One final point I’ll address is the claim that the large size of the human gluteus maximus is further evidence in favor of the ER theory. I would argue that the move to bipedalism makes the default resting position the squat (as I touched on in this video) and that the range of motion and strength required for this position necessitates strong and well-developed gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles. Look no further than your local gym to see how people train these muscles – squats, lunges, deadlifts etc.

Further Reading:

Bloggers and Strength Coaches Name Their 3 Favorite Exercises

Washboard Abs on a High-Fat Diet, No Ab Workouts and No Cardio?

Vibram FiveFingers

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Interesting discussion; I think both camps have valid arguments. One argument that favors the theory that humans evolved to be long distance runners is the lack of fur, and the presence of sweat glands. We know that animals cool off by panting because they lack sweat glands on their skin. This is why they can only sprint for relatively short distances; otherwise they would overheat and die. Humans on the other hand can run for long distances due to the efficiency of their sweat glands. The sweat glands basically make the entire skin surface an efficient heat exchanger. I tend to believe that early humans did do endurance running, but not often; and mostly walked. I’d say they ran to save time; for example, getting close to a herd of animals before the sun set in order to get dinner for that day.

    Dan wrote on December 14th, 2010
  2. I guess we did not exactly evolve to ride bicycles, but Lance Armstrong was an example of how we have become a species able to physically endure in a number of situations.

    Mark T wrote on April 21st, 2011
  3. Of coarse people were made to run long distance…why do you think humans can run longer than any other animal on the planet? we evolved to be able to breath and run, which allowed us to stand up erect. Also, we sweat to cool ourselves unlike any other animal…..Everyone read this amazing book! Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

    Cass wrote on May 4th, 2011
  4. I just got some Five-Fingers a couple weeks ago. I LOVE them. At this stage I’m alternating between my “regular” running shoes and my Five-Fingers to sort of “work up” my calves/shins, but I can see myself preferring the Five-Fingers in the long run. (Pun initially not intended, but upon reading that, it seems right.) I do everything else barefoot, why not run barefoot too!

    pet toys wrote on May 5th, 2011
  5. This is a little off-topic (I’m definitely more into the “Eat” and “Read” aspects of your blog), but wondering if you’ve read “The Myth of Wild Africa” by Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane. Just read it for an environmental history course and I’d be curious to know your thoughts since you have some first-hand experience with Africa. If you haven’t, I’d recommend it – it’s interesting (albeit 20 years old) and very readable. Thanks.

    pet toys wrote on May 5th, 2011
  6. And as far as the ERglute connection, empirically I’d note that I’ve seen many proficient distance runners with pretty insignificant/undeveloped glutes. At least relatively to other athletes/lifestyles.

    KC wrote on May 31st, 2011
  7. Might I ask how you came to this conclusion: “First, much of the fossil record suggests early humans were scavengers and lived pretty well off road kill until they started employing weapons a few hundred thousand years ago.”

    In the fossil record, wouldn’t scavenging and persistence hunting be pretty much identical? There’s no way of knowing if the kill was happened upon purely by chance, or if the kill was happened upon because of pursuit…

    Sarah wrote on August 21st, 2011
  8. i dont know if the author is right. but it is pretty much fact that humans are great long distance runners…

    peter wrote on November 1st, 2011
  9. That’s why the turtle always beats the rabbit 😀

    Aaron wrote on December 14th, 2011
  10. If you’re interested in cars, think about humans as a engine with a lot of torque, but less horsepower. The engine produces most of its energy at low RPMs, and cannot rev too high.

    Running marathons and doing cardiovascular exercises is like an engine with low torque, but a lot of horsepower. The engine produces most of its energy at high RPMs.

    Pac wrote on March 15th, 2012
  11. Actually humans are the fastest land animal over long distances and in fact we are the ONLY animal that can force themselves to run long distances constantly..its also to do with thermo regulation apparrantly other mammals overheat after a long time and slow down which is when hunters …there are many adaptations in the human body useful only to running long distances and they are not found in other primates. Other primates cannot run well or even travel over great distances. Our bipdalism is key to our success as a species and to really develop good thorough prambulation skills and to develop those muscles you need to develop every gait sufficiently. Also in either a hunter gatherer or sheparding lifestyle YOU NEED to be able to jog long distances and that is a fact. It is key to the practise of Persistance Hunting which dates back To suggest that we did not evolve to be better long distance runners shows you do not understabd evolution we a better runners than all of our ancestors…we evolved to be better runners may not be the entire reason we are successful…but we are the best runners out of all primates and out of all primates we have the best body for running sorry Mark the science just does not point to your theory at this point

    Louise Mulholland wrote on March 15th, 2012
  12. I came to this article looking for specific arguments against human endurance running. I don’t feel that this author addressed any of the points looked to as proof for this theory. His argument about no difference between short and long toes for walking just gives credence to the idea that we evolved short toes to run.

    He also doesn’t address the fact that humans have a nuchal ligament to support head movement while running, the fact that we have an achilles tendon and chimps don’t (which would help conserve energy lost during a run), and the fact that we are one of the few animals that is both almost hairless and has a vast quantity of sweat glands.

    This man seems very biased. I hope he starts backing up his points with evidence before he starts arguing against endurance running in the future.

    Patches wrote on April 6th, 2012
  13. So if there’s no difference in between the cost of walking with short toes versus long toes, than the simple fact that we have short toes should prove that we were not meant to be walkers, as there would be no reason for the short toed people to survive if it did not give an advantage. Which indicates we’re runners as there’s an advantage to having shorter toes while running. Second who says the men did the hunting? It’s absolutely ridiculous to think that women sat on their backsides when they’re the one who benefit from the protein the most, during lactation and pregnancy. Finally I suggest you check out Born to Run, which clearly mentions how the Kalahari bushmen fuel up on plants they scavenge, before runs after runs, (practically all the time really), which include things such as tubers that are, I believe, quite HIGH in carbohydrates, which would restore glycogen stores.

    Frank Jule wrote on April 13th, 2012
  14. The kalahari bushmen do practice persistence hunting. And compared to most quadrupeds humans are poor sprinters. The fastest human can run only at a speed of 39km/hr. Scavenging may also require endurance running. A human can locate a dead animal by observing scavenger birds circling in sky, which can be many miles from his location. Then he would have to reach the spot before other animals in which case walking or sprinting would not help him.

    byom wrote on June 11th, 2012
  15. ”And then there’s this: If men did most of the hunting, how is it that women are better suited to ultra running than men (compared to shorter running events) and a modern female like Ann Trason can beat most men today straight up in every ultra running event she enters? (Granted, she could be an outlier.)”

    Is there any evidence that men did most of the hunting in Paleolithic times? Without any reference, I remember form my anthology course back in college, that hunter-gatherer societies were quite sex-wise egalitarian. I think that this stereotype of women being gatherers and men hunters is another perversion of the Neolithic, where agriculture and not perishable foods permitted hierarchies to appear and women to be considered as an inferior cast of humans societies (as it is in many cultures actually) due to a slight physical strength disadvantage. Women are physically weaker than men, it’s true, but sexual dimorphism in Homo sapiens is not that huge compared to other mammals: Homo sapiens would definitely prefer running down a cow rather than a bull, but I don’t think a tiger or a lion would care between a male or female Homo sapiens to hunt down. Ok, men are stronger than women, but a man is still a defenseless and weak prey to the predators of the African savannah.

    Forgetting that man hunter, women gatherer stereotype, I don’t see why women could not hunt and excel at that theoretical persistence hunting thing.

    Etienne wrote on July 9th, 2012
  16. People seem more able to run long distances than other animals, with their efficient sweating, bipedal movement… a dog could outrun a fit person in a short burst but would tire quickly.

    And if you see persistence hunting videos, the people aren’t running like a marathon runner would. They’re more of jogging, and slow down to a brisk trot at times. The fact is humans seem to have a special capability to run more efficiently over long distances than pretty much any other animal.

    I can’t deny that.

    Miryem wrote on May 26th, 2013
  17. There is a flaw in these proposals: the assumption is made that all humans exhibit the same behavior; all humans are male; all males are hunters. Persistence hunting consists of 2-3 males running down an animal, killing it, and then finding themselves stranded 10-20-30 miles from the people (women, children, other males) who need fed. The hunters must guard the carcass while they rest (overnight) hack off what they can carry, which is a small portion of the animal, and run-walk back to the tribe. The meat is consumed immediately (rotting fast) and everyone is hungry again! This cannot be sustained – the group needs to scavenge and gather anything in the environment that is available to survive.

    The claim by people who are long distance runners that they are evolution’s destiny for our species is arrogant, unscientific and laughable.

    Bola wrote on August 18th, 2013
  18. How do you reconcile persistence hunting? There is excellent evidence that this was the original form of hunting before projectiles. Two million years of persistence hunting… What do you make of this?

    Mike wrote on September 6th, 2013
    • What evidence?

      Bola wrote on September 6th, 2013
  19. This is an excellent book by a scholar that presents plenty of evidence against both the persistence hunting and scavenging hypotheses:

    Travis Rayne Pickering, Rough and Tumble: Aggression, Hunting, and Human Evolution. Publisher: University of California Press (April 10, 2013). ISBN-10: 0520274008; ISBN-13: 978-0520274006.

    The book argues that proto-humans (Homo erectus and possibly some Austrolopithecenes) were ambush hunting using tools (stone and wooden) quite early (and the meat was an essential component of the diet).

    Andree wrote on October 16th, 2013

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