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Learning things late at night: Persistence Hunting

April 27, 2012

Not to sound cocky, reader, but I know a lot of things. Mostly things no man should know, things no man can ever unknow, things no other man ever will know (such is my burden, and my gift to you). Then again, some of the things I know are useful in a watching-Jeopardy!-with-someone-you-want-to-impress kind of way, so I have that going for me.

So, how do I do it? Taking performance-enhancing drugs a la the protagonist in Flowers for Algernon? Eating other really smart brains? No, you idiots! Instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour, I stay up and click things on Wikipedia.

The story of me lounging on my bed surfing the internet is actually an interesting one, since doing that is impossible without things like power grids supplying constant electricity to my home, people compensated for stuffing beds with springs and thousands of satellites floating around in the upper reaches of our atmosphere—things that themselves presuppose humanity’s place firmly at the top of the food chain.

The culmination of millions of years of human development.

Our ascent to this privileged position began when our ancestors sacked up and started eating other animals. Science-folk estimate that meat entered our diets about 2 million years ago. Since archaeologists claim that our first projectile weapon, the spear, wasn’t invented until only 200,000 years ago and our evolutionary ancestors weren’t fast enough to catch up to a gazelle and beat it with their fists/a rock, somebody’s got some ‘splaining to do.

It turns out the explanation is persistence hunting, which is as bad ass as it sounds. Early humanoids, likely homo erectus, would chase meaty creatures around for hours, until they died of hyperthermia (heat stroke). Only humans and horses can sweat, which keep their bodies cool during a run, so other animals pant to keep their bodies from overheating. Fortunately for us, they can’t pant while sprinting. So the animal would use its superior sprinting speed to get away at first, but soon enough it would hide in order to rest and cool down. Meanwhile, the humanoid in pursuit would use superior tracking skills to find the animal and force it to run some more. This dance continued until the animal finally died.

Our ancestors’ bodies were perfectly suited for the task. Bipedalism makes us comparatively slow over short distances, but it helps conserve metabolic energy better than four-legged locomotion over long distances. Our relative hairlessness and ability to sweat kept us cool in the equatorial African Sun.

The endurance running hypothesis is the theory that the physical attributes of modern humans can be explained as adaptations to long-distance running. Short toes, for example, do not make walking any easier, but reduce the consumption of metabolic energy when running. Big, strong butts are ideal in propelling a runner. Also useful are long legs, like the ones we have. This hypothesis would help explain the problems that arise from sedentary lifestyles, like diabetes and high blood pressure; our bodies were not made to be overweight. The fact that different cultures from all around the world are drawn to distance running independently is further evidence for this theory.

The Tarahumara people of northwestern Mexico continue to practice a lifestyle built around distance running. Reportedly, they display astounding immunity to modern diseases like cancer and can run 120 miles in one session. Another such people, the Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa, continue to practice persistence hunting. A BBC camera crew was able to capture one hunting party in action. (How they did that without disturbing the parties involved or affecting the result amazes me.)

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A this-isn’t-school-so-fuck-citation-guidelines bibliography:

This and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this.

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