Baboons survive today because their ancestors evolved a successful approach for living on the savannah. They did this by organizing into powerful bad ass gangs. Like all other non-human animals, baboons still survive by living in the manner for which evolution has fine-tuned them, free from addictions to crutches like fire or complex weapons. They stayed in their tropical homeland, and could possibly remain there for another million years, if the human turbulence in their ecosystem mercifully mellowed out.
Unlike baboons, our ancestors took a radically different approach to surviving on tropical savannahs. They quit knuckle walking, evolved an upright posture, and became bipedal — standing, striding, and sprinting on two legs, not four. This transition reduced or eliminated their ability to quickly scamper up trees, where they were less vulnerable to predators. So, a new category of primates was born: hominins — bipedal ground-dwelling primates.
The earliest bipedal primate is the subject of controversy. It may have lived as early as 6 million years ago. By about 4 million years ago, our ancestors’ feet had become less useful for grasping (climbing trees), and more attuned for walking smoothly.
In Tanzania, 3.6 million years ago, two bipedal ancestors left their footprints in wet volcanic ash. In 1978, at the Laetoli site, scientists discovered 70 of their fossilized footprints, in a sequence that was 88 feet long (27m). These ancestors were probably Australopithecus afarensis.
Why the shift to bipedal travel? Over time, as climate change expanded grassland, the distance between groves of trees increased. Knuckle walking is OK for short trips, but striding is more comfortable and energy efficient for longer journeys. Standing upright provided a better view of the surroundings. It also made them more visible to hungry predators. It freed up their hands for carrying things like food, water, infants, embers, and tools.
For brief high-speed getaways, hominins were far slower than galloping chimps. Alfred Crosby noted that bipedal striding is like walking on stilts, and it increases the odds for falling down. Four-legged critters (quadrupeds) like canines, cats, or horses move in a manner that is far more graceful, stable, and speedy.
On the savannah, evolution typically selected for prey animals that were better high speed escape artists. Consequently, it also selected for the predators that were more effective at killing them. If prey gradually got larger, predators gradually got larger. If prey got faster, so did the predators. If prey got too good at surviving, they would overgraze the savannah and starve. If predators got too good at hunting, they would eliminate their prey and starve. The ecosystem was an endless bloody evolutionary soap opera.
With regard to our ancestors, evolution advanced an unusual mutation. Instead of size or speed, it selected for heat tolerance and long distance running. Compared to four-legged critters, standing upright exposed less of their bodies to hot sunbeams, and their bushy hairdos provided extra heat protection. Their nearly furless bodies, equipped with three million juicy sweat glands, allowed them to shed body heat better than other savannah mammals.
Tree-dwelling primates enjoyed a diet majoring in fruit, which grew all around them, all year long. On the savannah, there was less fruit, so foraging required travelling farther, and finding other things to eat. Some believe that our ancestors became bipedal to improve their success at scavenging — beating competitors to fresh carcasses. Bernd Heinrich wrote that at Yellowstone Park, dead animals are reduced to a pile of bones in just seven hours. In Africa, hyenas devour the bones too.
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 gracefully glide along, lightly skimming across the land.
The shift to bipedal locomotion resulted in some radical changes in our ancestors’ skeletons. Notably, the pelvis got narrower, which reduced the size of the birth canal — the passageway through which fetuses pass during birth. This challenge was dealt with in two ways. (1) Birth occurred earlier, when brains were smaller and less mature. This extended the duration of childhood, the spacing between births, and the need for extended parental oversight. (2) Since bipeds no longer slept in the trees, they could grow heavier and bigger. Increased size was an asset for hunting and defense. Longer legs enabled longer strides, which boosted running speed. Larger bodies retained water better, delaying dehydration.
Bipedal locomotion was an unusual evolutionary experiment. Few if any humans still live in the manner for which evolution fine-tuned us, a practice known as persistence hunting.
On the savannah, predators made speedy attacks, and their prey attempted quick getaways, but both soon had to find shade and chill out, because bursts of high exertion promptly led to overheating. Consequently, predator attacks were resolved quickly. If a charging lion failed to promptly take down its target, the attack ended, and the prey might live to see another day.
Our ancestors gained the ability to engage in steady long distance running, hour after hour, in the oven-like midday heat of tropical savannahs. Once a chase began, the prey animals immediately scattered. The hunter quickly selected an animal that was less strong and speedy, and began trotting after it. Even when the prey was miles ahead, the hunter would doggedly follow its trail, reducing its ability to rest and cool off.
Persistence hunting requires no weapons. Hunters must possess a deep understanding of animal behavior, great skill in the art of tracking, an intuitive mind, a healthy body, and sufficient water and nutrients for a long run. Kalahari people had exceptional tracking skills. Women were as good as men, or better, at interpreting spoor. At the end of a successful pursuit, the prey might collapse from exhaustion or heat stroke, or simply stop running. If the hunter found it still alive, he could suffocate it or bonk it on the head.
Liebenberg was maybe the first civilized person to participate in persistence hunting (he nearly died from heat stroke). He observed a six and a half hour chase that covered 21.7 miles (35 km), on a day when the temperature ranged between 89°F and 107°F (32°C and 42°C).
He noted that tracking encouraged wild people to develop heightened abilities for intuitive thinking, because the tracks of their prey were rarely clear and complete. Knowledge of animal behavior helped to fill in the blanks and suggest the most likely escape route. The mental process was fast, automatic, effortless, and often unconscious. Intuition also enhanced social relationships. Wild people were far more sensitive to each other than folks in the modern world, whom Liebenberg saw as being severely handicapped by shallow or dysfunctional relationships.
Maybe our ancestors learned persistence hunting from hyenas, who hunt in packs, using their super-sensitive noses to follow animals until they are exhausted. Or, maybe they first learned by chasing small, slow moving critters. Somehow, maybe several million years ago, our hominin ancestors learned the clever trick of using overheating and exhaustion as deadly weapons — and the keys to survival.
Every gardener who has experienced backaches or sore knees, is painfully aware that evolution did not fine tune hominins for spending long hours on their knees or bent over, engaged in tedious repetitive movements — digging, cultivating, planting, weeding, picking, threshing, grinding, and so on. What you see in the mirror is a body optimized for long distance pursuits across hot African savannahs — a meat-loving hunter and forager.
Bears have never forgotten their identity, consequently they confidently continue to live like bears, which is why they remain perfectly sane, and have no need for psych meds. The same can be said for all the wild animals alive today. The glaring exception is a super large mob of modernized persistence hunters who have become extremely disoriented by memory loss.
Young children, even in the deepest darkest McMansion suburbs, are fascinated by bears, lions, horses, bunnies, piggies, and others. They play with teddy bears, pretend to be horses, and love looking at animals in picture books. The kids are animals, and their hominin ancestors have been fascinated by animals for six million years. Sadly, most will spend their lives in a reality where most of the animals they’ll closely experience will be thoroughly domesticated critters purchased for companionship or status display.
Jung said that we still retain unconscious memories of our arboreal past, when falling out of trees caused big fear. Many of us have suddenly awakened with a gasp when a dream included a sudden plunge. Nightmares commonly involve being chased or attacked by dangerous predators. In crowded movie theaters, when the woman is about to be stabbed by a psycho killer, the hall explodes with loud squeals and screams, like our primate ancestors in a distant rainforest.
Over the last six million years, every species of bipedal primate has gone extinct, except one — and almost all of us have abandoned persistence hunting as a routine component of basic survival. Don’t worry. Close your eyes and imagine what humans might become if we spent the next 200,000 years sitting on couches, staring at glowing screens, washing down greasy pizza with fizzy sugar water.
Running Goes Global
By and by, as hominins spread far beyond the savannahs of tropical Africa, so did persistence hunting. It spread around the world, because it works, and because evolution fine-tuned us for doing it. For almost the entire hominin saga, we lived on our feet. Running was a key factor in our ancestors’ survival, until we got wheels, four legged slaves, and other weird and troublesome things.
Tim Flannery reported that the Aborigines of Western Australia would pursue an individual kangaroo until it was overheated and exhausted. The chase could take several days. Johann Kohl wrote that the Ojibway would often run down elk, especially in the winter, when deep snow soon wore out the animal. Hunters on snowshoes could pursue the animal for hours. Kohl also mentioned a Sioux hunter who chased a bear to exhaustion.
Bernd Heinrich wrote about the Penobscot tribe chasing down moose, and the Navajo and Paiutes wearing out pronghorn antelopes. In Southern Africa, hunters chased steenbok, gemsbok, wildebeest, zebras, and others. Wendell Bennett wrote about the Tarahumara people of Mexico pursuing deer and turkeys until they collapsed.
Peter Nabokov noted that some Tarahumara lads could run 170 miles (273 km) without stopping. Mexicans would hire them to capture wild horses, sometimes chasing them for two or three days, until the horses could run no more — while the men remained fresh. Nabokov quoted a Hopi man: “Long ago when the Hopi had no sheep, no horses, no burros, they had to depend for game-capturing on their legs.”
Nabokov provided 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. 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.
For wild people in open country, running was essential for communication, warfare, hunting, ceremonies, and rituals. Apache boys of 8 to 12 years old regularly ran to improve their endurance and pain tolerance. They ran carrying big loads, and they ran up mountains. Apache warriors were much stronger and braver than the U.S. Army lads sent to exterminate them.
Nabokov wrote that 4-year old Navajo boys had to get up before sunrise every day and run four miles before having breakfast. Speed and strength were essential when attacking enemies, or being attacked. No one will help you in this world, you must run to get strong. Your legs are your friends.
I spent many years sitting indoors at 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.