For at least four million years, our ancestors have been bipedal, they moved around on two legs. This ability evolved on the African savannah, tropical grassland. Being upright exposed less of their bodies to hot sunbeams, and their bushy head hair provided extra protection. Their nearly furless bodies, combined with three million sweat glands, allowed them to shed body heat better than other savannah mammals.
Being bipedal prohibited lightning fast bursts of speed, but it enabled steady long distance running in roasting temperatures. Other mammals could make quick getaways, but they soon had to find shade and chill out. Our ancestors were able to chase large animals in the heat of the day, hour after hour, until their prey collapsed from exhaustion or heat stroke.
The person you see in the mirror has a body that is optimized for running, not walking. Your toes and heel tendons provide a bounce when your foot hits the ground, improving energy efficiency. Your legs and spine are fine-tuned for jogging, keeping your head and eyes steady. Skilled runners seem to move with elegant smoothness, effortlessly gliding along, lightly skimming across the land.
As I learned more about long distance running, I kept discovering fascinating tidbits about persistence hunting. Aborigines would eventually outrun kangaroos. The Penobscot tribe chased down moose, and the Navajo and Paiutes would subdue antelopes. The Tarahumara pursued deer and turkeys. In Southern Africa, game included steenbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, zebras, and others. Peter Nabokov’s book, Indian Running, blew my mind.
The book was born in 1980, when Nabokov covered a five-day footrace in New Mexico. Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni runners covered more than 375 miles (603 km). The event celebrated the 300-year anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt. Santa Fe was “the first and only white man’s city to be conquered and occupied by North American Indians.”
In 1680, Spaniards had been building missions in the region for 90 years, and they displayed remarkable gifts for behaving like class-A tyrants. Natives from up to 300 miles (483 km) away coordinated their attack to expel the illegal aliens, and defend the American way of life. Churches went up in smoke, their hated bells were smashed, documents were burned, 21 detested priests were sent to their just rewards, along with 380 of their Spanish and Mexican Indian associates. Good triumphed over evil (for 12 years). Joy!
The outline of Nabokov’s book includes five chapters that provide commentary on the five days of the 1980 race. Throughout the text, he inserted passages about other tribes and eras, with regard to running, and these passages include some mind-altering gems. By the end of the book, my perception of what it means to be human had been significantly updated and clarified.
Every morning, I step outdoors and wince at the rumbling thunder of thousands of motorized wheelchairs. We consider this normal, but limited energy reserves guarantee that this silliness can have no long-term future. When the last Toyota croaks, an extremely bloated population is not going to return to travelling by horse. By the 1890s, industrial cities had become filthy, stinking, unhealthy nightmares of horse manure, urine, and thick clouds of flies (read THIS).
A mere 5,500 years ago, horses were domesticated in Kazakhstan. Like the atom bomb, this event radically altered the course of the human saga. With horses, the ferocious Mongols rapidly created the biggest contiguous empire in all history. Mounted warriors dominated warfare for centuries, until guns and cannons came to the battlefield. Plains Indians didn’t acquire horses until the eighteenth century, at which point their way of life promptly experienced turbulent changes, but that’s another story.
Nabakov’s story is about running. For essentially four million years, running meant survival. A Hopi man said, “Long ago when the Hopi had no sheep, no horses, no burros, they had to depend for game-capturing on their legs.” Running was also vital during conflicts — for chasing despised enemies, and for speedy exits when despised enemies came to visit. Running could be crucial for escaping the claws and jaws of man-eating predators, and other bummers.
He noted that many civilizations used runners to deliver messages — Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Aztecs, Incas, Mayans. With fresh runners ready at stations placed several miles apart, messages could move through the Inca world at 150 miles (241 km) per day. In Greece, the “marathon” race refers to 490 B.C., when a soldier ran 25 miles (40 km) from Marathon to Athens, bringing news of the Athenian victory over the Persians — and then he collapsed from exhaustion and died.
Nabokov provides numerous accounts of Indian messengers traveling great distances. One ran 50 miles in six hours. A Mojave lad ran 200 miles (322 km) in 24 hours. Seven days a week, a Tarahumara man ran a 70 mile (112 km) route, carrying a heavy mailbag. Another report noted that some Tarahumara lads could run 170 miles (273 km) without stopping. Mexicans would hire them to capture wild horses, chasing them for two or three days, until the horses could run no more — while the men remained fresh. After running 15 miles (24 km), Zuni runners still had a slow heart rate and no signs of fatigue. Men in their seventies continued to have tremendous endurance, as well as low blood pressure.
Ceremonial running was done after planting to bring rain, and ensure a good harvest. For Navajo and Apache women, a four-day rite of passage ritual was held to honor their first menstruation. Young ladies would run each day, to become strong in body and soul. Many other tribes practiced forms of puberty running.
When he was just four years old, Navajo lad Rex Lee Jim was awakened before sunrise each day, and sent outside to run four miles before breakfast. In winter, he might take a freeze bath, rolling in the snow before running. Geronimo and the Apaches were infamous bad asses. By the age of 8, boys were being taught to increase their strength, endurance, and tolerance of pain. They ran up mountains. They ran carrying loads. They punched trees. Apache warriors were far stronger and tougher than the U.S. cavalry soldiers sent to exterminate them.
I spent many years sitting indoors in school desks, learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, loading my brains with the ideas necessary to be an obedient, punctual, productive cog in the industrial society that’s pounding the planet to pieces. Wild Native Americans, during the years of their youth, were being taught to be strong, brave, and extremely healthy. They learned the skills needed to survive in their ecosystem, in a low impact manner. During their entire lives, they sent nothing to landfills.
In the Boston Marathon, participants are running for themselves, individuals in a vast mob of folks motivated to beat records and gain fame. When Indians run in races, they do so as members of their tribe. They have a sense of belonging, of community, of one enduring culture, that white people never experience. When natives run, the message is about peace, harmony, and uniting as a people. Race time is not important.
Fame tends to result in bigheads bloated with pride, an unwelcome irritant in tribal communities. Excellent native runners are more likely to pump gas than become famous celebrity athletes on national TV. There’s no place like home.
Nabokov, Peter, Indian Running, 1981, Reprint, Ancient City Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1987.
For more info on running and tracking, see my two previous reviews, The Art of Tracking, and The Origin of Science. Other interesting books include Why We Run, by Bernd Heinrich, and The Tarahumara, by Wendell Bennett and Robert Zingg.