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. 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
  2. That’s why the turtle always beats the rabbit 😀

    Aaron wrote on December 14th, 2011
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. 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
  8. ”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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. From my recent paper in Human Evolution 28:237-266: “… The nowadays popular ideas about Pleistocene human ancestors running in open plains (‘endurance running’, ‘dogged pursuit of swifter animals’, ‘born to run’, ‘le singe coureur’, ‘Savannahstan’) are among the worst scientific hypotheses ever proposed. The surprising frequency and diversity of foot problems (e.g., hammertoes, hallux valgus and bunions, ingrown nails, heelspurs, athlete’s feet, corns and calluses—some of these due to wearing shoes) and the need to protect our feet with shoes prove that human feet are not made in the first place for running. Moreover, humans are physiologically ill-adapted to dry open milieus: ‘We have a water- and sodium-wasting cooling system of abundant sweat glands, totally unfit for a dry environment. Our maximal urine concentration is much too low for a savanna-dwelling mammal. We need much more water than other primates, and have to drink more often than savanna inhabitants, yet we cannot drink large quantities at a time” (Verhaegen 1987 “Origin of Hominid Bipedalism” Nature 325:305-6).”
    Incredible that are still “scientsts” who believe this Pleistocene Homo running nonsense.
    Human Evolution now publishes the proceedings of the symposium on human waterside evolution ‘Human Evolution: Past, Present & Future’ in London 8-10 May 2013:
    SPECIAL EDITION PART 1 (end 2013)
    Introduction – Peter Rhys-Evans
    1. Human’s Association with Water Bodies: the ‘Exaggerated Diving Reflex’ and its Relationship with the Evolutionary Allometry of Human Pelvic and Brain Sizes – Stephen Oppenheimer
    2. Human Ecological Breadth: Why Neither Savanna nor Aquatic Hypotheses can Hold Water – JH Langdon
    3. Endurance Running versus Underwater Foraging: an Anatomical and Palaeoecological Perspective – Stephen Munro
    4. Wading Hypotheses of the Origin of Human Bipedalism – Algis Kuliukas
    5. The Aquatic Ape Evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions about the So-Called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis – Marc Verhaegen
    6. The Epigenetic Emergence of Culture at the Coastline: Interaction of Genes, Nutrition, Environment and Demography – CL Broadhurst & Michael Crawford
    SPECIAL EDITION PART 2 (begin 2014) with 12 contributions

    marc verhaegen wrote on December 1st, 2013
  14. Mark, lopinion is no re is the thing about your claim here, you are not a scientist and you don’t use any data of study of fact in your theory. You are like that guy who created a site abd theory that Neanderthals were ape looking alpha predators who ate and raped humans. It doesn’t make sense and is claimed without a shread of evidence. Your opinon is no replacement for cold hard aquired dsta and scientific evidence. For those who said that they know people who engage in some sort of marathon sporting activity and that these people are constantly sick, that is anecdotal and not admissible. I am a certified wilderness survival teacher and when training for this I often engaged in ER activity when doing so. I was exposed to the elements and was without modern medical intervention and accommodation, I had no illness and have not had even a cold for well over 10 years. The fact is that this ER ability is a trait of humans. You forgot to mention some of the most important evidence in that theory. Humans have an Achilles tendon, it does not exist in any other animal. This trait is directly related to another, humans are the only animals on the planet that use a completely different mechanism to run than to walk. The tendon is a shock absorbing energy storing spring. We prespire, it is the best natural cooling system amoung creatures of Earth. We are among the only animals on Earth who can run aerobically. Most animals cannot breathe and run at the same time, this is true in the cheetah, they can only acheive short bursts of their speed because of this, and they are almost helpless after they do so with their bodies oxygen deprived. Its too far fetched to have evolved these abilities that work in tandem to deny their contribution to ER.

    jason bladzinski wrote on March 3rd, 2014
  15. What a pathetic excuse to feel comfortable about being a lazy slob and not doing endurance sports… Unbelievable that some people would go to the extent of doing hours and hours of research just to justify their own lazyness, plus you only rely on personnal experiences rather than solid scientific proofs.. The body adapts, YOUR body and your cardiovascular , if you move, you will have a bigger heart wich will provide your muscles for longer runs, amongst other benefits on the digestive system and such. I’m sick of people finding excuses just because they cant stand endurance sports, find something you like and stick with it, period.. I hate lifting weights, but I do it anyway combined with cardio cause it makes me feel good

    Marty wrote on March 18th, 2014
  16. Running long distance has nothing to do with being sick, it’s that the people who do run long distance usaly are very skinny and low weight for the proportion of there body which can usaly mean the person only has the nutrients in there body for running and not the other nutrients needed for the immune system and body to function 100% which protect us from sicknesses and disease

    wyatt galarneau wrote on April 12th, 2014
  17. Mark, a few questions, if you don’t mind (from an ultra runner, paleo/primal eater and journalist):

    1) Why are you using marathon data and not ultra marathon data? Isn’t a persistence hunt an ultra, not a marathon? And aren’t ultras aerobic, not anaerobic? (Isn’t that why we train/race with heart-rate monitors: so we don’t go aerobic and, instead, build our speed within our aerobic zone?)

    2) When exactly would you be running hard for a long time in a persistence hunt? The longer it goes, the slower the prey gets. I’m guessing here, because I’m not a persistence hunter, but wouldn’t the prey lose you if you walked and didn’t at least run easy in the beginning? Then, tracking skills aside, wouldn’t things just slow down from there?

    3) How exactly does a persistence hunt kill look in the archaeological record, compared to a scavenged site?

    4) If we’re “pretty decent” short sprinters, why can our prey (literally any deer, rabbit, et cetera) run twice as fast as our fastest sprinters?

    5) Why do you focus just on the toe example? What about the couple dozen other indicators in human anatomy that point to long-distance running?

    6) Why do you assume women didn’t participate in persistence hunts? One of the commenters above talks about making a kill, then not being able to drag it back home, but nomadic peoples follow the game–they can’t wait for it to come around. (Again, what does a persistence hunt kill look like in the archaeologic record? How do you know women weren’t there, just because they weren’t there at mastodon kills?)

    7) Why do you mention the Tarahumara (high-carb diet) and not the Kalahari bushmen (San), who traditionally ate mostly nuts and meat? They’re both (were) persistence hunting societies, on very different diets, yet you only mention one. (Sure, the ER people only mention one, but should you limit yourself to one, too?)

    8) How can you be so sure our glutes evolved for squatting and scrambling, but not running?

    9) Are you an archaeologist, anatomist, human evolutionary expert or any other type of expert in this field?

    10) How in the world, as a former elite runner, can you be so ignorant about ultras? I mean, even a newbie ultra athlete can tell you that you don’t run hard in an ultra. A marathon (clearly your wheelhouse), is an interval by comparison. (Literally: a 3-hour interval at 80+ percent max heart rate, versus a 4-24+ hour slog at 70%.)

    I’m sorry to a dink, but I think this piece is a hack job, and I’m frankly tired of reading hack jobs. (This is, to date, the 2nd comment I’ve ever written on a blog or media site–the other one was yesterday to the New York Times).

    There’s plenty of evidence for the running man theory, and this seems more of an uninformed opinion piece than anything else. Why pick and choose, ignoring all the evidence? Why so certain about your position?

    I posed my thoughts as questions and not refutations, because I don’t really know the answers, I wasn’t around 200,000 years ago when the homo sapien design emerged? In my opinion, that’s how a genuinely interested, agenda-agnostic person puts forth their ideas on very, very debatable topics like this.

    Again, not to be a dink, but…
    As an ultra athlete, I’m offended by your ignorance. As a paleo/primal advocate, I’m starting to question your knowledge on that topic.

    Mostly, though, I’m offended as a journalist; by your amateurish approach (i.e., lack of research). As a blogger, you’re inherently a journalist. May I suggest you do some research on what that means?

    Cessec wrote on June 6th, 2014
  18. Haha brilliant! so based on a particular 6ft tall tribe in africa, and the fact that a reasonably athletic modern human standing a full foot taller than his recent ancestors (think generations not millennia) and having been raised on a varied and comprehensive diet and just spent the night on the latest scientific wonder mattress can chase down a gazelle (if lucky), proves persistence hunting as important in the development of you as some sort of apex predator which runs down gazelle? It’s a nice and ludicrously fanciful thought.

    Sorry but here’s a crazy alternative theory. The dominant reason for the short toes, the more upright posture, the specialisation toward more efficient land travel is 99.99% driven by our movement out of and away from the trees. I hate to break it to you but life swinging between trees not predatorial specialisation is the likely primary reason for forward facing eyes too.

    How do you avoid being lion lunch? You run. And you don’t stop. That’s what gazelles do. And apparently we’re better at it than they are. Why? because lions don’t pursue prey beyond a sprint.

    Anyway, while we’re discussing crazy alternative theories, chasing down meat may provide some protein but it doesn’t provide any reason for the development of cognitive capability. Hunting in packs and using signals like chimps do, using language, tools, horticulture, agriculture, cooking, these things all favour the development of higher cognitive capacity.

    It looks as if we are once again faced with the age old scientific dilemma: What makes sense versus what we want to believe.

    I like to think that if my ancestors ate rabbit they did so by training other animals to go down the burrow or inventing the shovel and the net. If yours were running about the countryside then for all the modern conveniences you now enjoy -you’re welcome;)

    Simple wrote on September 27th, 2014
  19. You’ve convinced me simply by mentioning the high carb requirements of long distance runners and the lack of available carb rich foods sources until the advent of agriculture… not to mention much of your other well argued points. I think You’ve casted serious doubt upon ER hypothesis. Very plain and simply argued with sound reasoning.

    AG wrote on December 11th, 2014
  20. so all you long distance runners who comment saying things such as “all you need is good training, good diet, good carbs, and optimal 8 hours of rest and I can run all day, I never even get sick”. how do you expect to find all the nutrients to replenish your 7 hour run in an uncontrolled wild and natural environment where each meal could be your last.its easy to be confident when you return home to running water, shelter, ac, all the carbs you could want. If we were born to race down our prey we would have four legs. you really think a human could chase down a deer? have any of you ever been hunting or do you just think running nonstop is enough to survive in the wild. you live in a controlled environment where everyday survival is driving to the nearest grocery store for a protein bar. be real. native tribes would scoff at the notion of running after their prey for 10 miles. I don’t care how old you are and how long you have been running 50 miles a think the animals going to think “oh this guy ran the Boston marathon I should just give up now.

    maxxx wrote on April 27th, 2015

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