Running Made Us Human

After 15 minutes of sustained running, fit humans can outlast nearly all mammals, especially in hot weather.

Lieberman and others hypothesize that roughly 2 million years ago Homo erectus ancestors, armed with sharpened sticks and stones, were able to kill prey by persistence hunting. This strategy, practiced in some recent forager societies, entails pursing a tasty herbivore in midday sun until the animal collapses from exhaustion and heat stroke. Hunters can then finish it off with simple weapons.

This scenario could solve a major puzzle in human evolution: how did Homo erectus get meat? Researchers assume these hominins hunted because archaeological sites, between 2 and 1 million years old, have yielded plenty of butchered animal bones. Yet stone tools back then were hefty implements, like the Acheulean handaxe — technology better suited for processing carcasses than impaling moving targets. Projectile weapons, like the bow and arrow, were probably not invented until the past 80,000 years. It’s hard to imagine handaxe-wielding hominins catching much prey, especially since they would have been competing with lions, hyena and other African carnivores.

Ethnographic studies have noted persistence hunts in some recent hunter-gatherer societies, including Kalahari Bushmen, Aboriginal Australians and Native American groups in the American Southwest and Mexico. A 2006 Current Anthropology paper provided the first real data on the matter, based on 10 persistence hunts in the Kalahari of Botswana (one was filmed for David Attenborough’s docu-series Life of Mammals ).

These hunts, which were successful five out of 10 times, lasted up to 6 hours and covered 10-20 miles in temperatures over 100°F. During the chases, prey would sprint ahead in short bursts punctuated by resting bouts. Meanwhile the humans slowly and steadily pursued, averaging paces of 9.6 to 15 minutes per mile. Though the hunters periodically lost sight of the animal, signs like footprints and indented grass indicated its path.

Solves a lot of very interesting questions together. Have you seen this yet @NLENTS?


Humans have exceptional capabilities to run long distances in hot, arid conditions. These abilities, unique among primates and rare among mammals, derive from a suite of specialised features that permit running humans to store and release energy effectively in the lower limb, help keep the body’s center of mass stable and overcome the thermoregulatory challenges of long distance running. Human endurance running performance capabilities compare favourably with those of other mammals and probably emerged sometime around 2 million years ago in order to help meat-eating hominids compete with other carnivores.

Apparently, humans can “run with horses,” and win:

If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? …
Jeremiah 12:5

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Lieberman’s book is good:


I won’t claim to be able to outrun horses, but I do love running. It’s one of the most wonderful feelings in the world!


Yes, I discuss persistence hunting in some of my talks and I use the 2014 Lieberman book, plus some articles, in my Human Evolution class. I think the notion that long-distance running was key to the transition from herbivory to omnivory in hominins is theoretically pretty strong. (Although I do wonder if my personal support is somewhat unconsciously influenced by my being a mid-distance runner myself.) Alongside that, but less discussed, is the role of scavenging. I think one big thing we got out of hand axes was the ability to crack bones and get to the marrow, a resource that may have gone mostly untapped. Anyway, I highly recommend the Lieberman book, especially the parts about diet and mismatch disease.


I’ve heard him speak. He’s very convincing.


Perhaps Lieberman needs to run more and clear the head on these matters.
Running did not make us human. another hypothesis out of thin air.
Why not saying refusing to run with the other homids made our brains smarter??
The whole point of being human , Lieberman aside, is to be smart. So avoiding hard work to gain advantage over what one is hunting.
another point would be that INDEED no creatures run all the time. Even wolves etc. So on a curve of probability we would not be different.
Legs to brains is just another funny last gasp to explain human uniqueness.

Same here. The theory brings together a wide range of evidence from archeology, anatomy, diet and metabolism, brain development, exercise physiology (especially about heat dissipation), and it also jibes really well from what we’ve seen in some HG tribes that (still?) hunt this way. Unfortunately, paleoanthropology rarely gets their evidence in clear “smoking gun” kind of moments, like microbio, cell bio, or genetics sometimes get. Instead, ideas like this rely on a preponderance of evidence from many different fields. It’s why I LOVE this kind of science. :slight_smile:


5 posts were split to a new topic: When Did We Become Human?