In many cultures, runners chased their prey to death
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In many cultures, runners chased their prey to death

Translation: machine translated

Hardly any other animal is as optimised for endurance running as humans. That's why we could rush almost any prey to death. But did our ancestors do the same? There are now new arguments in the dispute over this old hypothesis.

In evolutionary terms, humans are highly specialised endurance runners that are almost unique in the animal kingdom. When it comes to covering long distances at a running pace, they can compete with practically any other animal, even horses. This is thanks to its upright gait, the special arrangement of its muscles, the composition of its muscle fibres and, last but not least, its ability to cool down its own body quickly and effectively by sweating.

Endurance hunts - i.e. chasing prey until it collapses from exhaustion and overheating - could therefore have been the favoured hunting strategy of Homo sapiens and its immediate ancestors. This is also supported by the fact that without tools such as long-range weapons or traps, humans are not really capable of capturing even a rabbit, let alone a deer.

However, experts have put forward a number of arguments against this theory. For example, reports of so-called endurance hunts are only known from a few peoples, such as the South African San. Running after a prey animal for many kilometres also seems to be a losing proposition in terms of energy. Eugene Morin from Trent University in Canada and Bruce Winterhalder from the University of California in Davis have now addressed these two objections. In the current issue of "Nature Human Behaviour", they explain why they consider both to be unconvincing.

Firstly, they calculated the energy balance of an endurance hunt by relating the energy expenditure when running to the calorie yield from the meat of the prey. Only with the smallest prey did they find a disproportion between effort and yield. Their calculations also showed that running is usually more favourable than walking, because it greatly shortens the duration of the hunt, but thanks to the optimised physiology of humans, it only means low additional energy costs.

400 cases of documented endurance hunts

On the other hand, the two scientists combed through extensive digital copies of ethnographic reports from the past five centuries for evidence of endurance hunts. This has only become practicable now that many library collections are accessible online. They found a total of 400 such passages (for those interested read here). Although they only represent a small minority of the total number of reports on hunts, the list clearly shows that the technique of endurance hunting was widespread on all inhabited continents.

Not all landscapes appear to be equally suitable for endurance hunting. For example, there is no evidence of them in densely forested regions. The two researchers were surprised that examples of such hunts could also be found in colder regions. Previously, it had been assumed that heat was an important factor in enabling the "sweating ape" to utilise its advantages over its prey.

However, even in the north of America and Eurasia, endurance hunting was a common method, according to the documentation. From Siberia, for example, the explorer Alexander Theodor von Middendorff reported in 1867 from his visit to the Ewenken: "Slowly the racing animals are pushed towards the forest until, often only towards the evening of the hunting day, the chase begins. On exceptionally light hunting snowshoes, the animals are now chased out of breath, caught up, often stabbed with the knife, but often missed with the arrow at a distance of only a few paces, because the hunter is so out of breath that it may not always be possible to draw the bow, even if only to draw it. The elk is hunted in exactly the same way and, when the snow is favourable, it often cannot leave the spot after two miles of strenuous running."

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Header image: Lee Rentz / Bruce Coleman/Photoshot / picture alliance (detail) The authors also found evidence of endurance hunts in northern regions. Hunters used snowshoes to chase reindeer until they collapsed from exhaustion.

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