Our Ancient Ancestors Would Crush Us in a Fitness Competition
We’ve evolved into a bunch of out of shape weaklings.
A few weeks ago, my German Shorthaired Pointer, Stockton, and I were on a run along a trail network in the Mojave Desert foothills behind our home. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded. Maybe we should slow down.” Stockton skidded to a halt, swooping his head around to eye me with a “what the hell’s wrong with you?” look. I felt like I might vomit.
A couple miles earlier, we’d heard yapping somewhere far off in the desert. In the distance, some breed of poofy white dog stood barking, swallowed by the immensity of the empty land. Dogs often get lost out here—they escape from the neighborhoods below and seek refuge in the hills, where there’s no water and a lot of heat, snakes, and coyotes. This furball would be dead in 48 hours, I thought.
Stockton and I hatched a plan: We’d chase down the imperiled canine, and then I’d pick him up and take him back to civilization to find his owner. Simple. Off we went, galloping towards the dog, who saw us coming and took off in turn. Evolutionarily speaking, this task should have come naturally to me: Studies have shown that humans likely evolved to run very long distances in order to chase down prey—or, in this case, a lapdog. In fact, the type of fitness required to run down a deer, kudu, or antelope to the brink of exhaustion was commonplace thousands of years ago, according to another study.
The researchers discovered the bones of prehistoric homo sapiens were more dense than ours today, suggesting early sapiens likely ran far more often—and for longer distances. Other studies suggest many early humans had the running capacity of today’s competitive cross-country athletes.
Most big game can easily outsprint us, but they tire quickly. That's likely a big part of the reason why humans developed attributes geared toward endurance running; for example, we don’t have much hair and we have larger sweat glands, which keep us cooler during exercise.
Early humans would slowly but surely chase down prey for miles upon miles until the animal toppled over from heat exhaustion, at which point we’d spear it and have dinner for up to a month. This method, called “persistence hunting,” was likely practiced by prehistoric hunter-gatherers for nearly two million years. It was also used by the Rarámuri to hunt deer in the mountains of northern Mexico, and Aborigines for hunting kangaroo in northwestern Australia.
Kalahari bushmen used the technique as little as a decade ago, until South Africa banned hunting altogether, says Louis Liebenberg, an associate professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University who has studied persistence hunting and tracking. Liebenberg discovered that Kalahari persistence hunts required the bushmen to run an average 9:40 minute/mile pace across more than 20 miles of rugged, sandy terrain in 107-degree heat.
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More recently, a team of nine professional runners—one of them a 2:10 marathoner—attempted to persistence hunt a New Mexican pronghorn antelope, which can sprint 60 miles an hour. The runners covered 20 miles over the course of the hunt and at one point clocked a 4:36 mile. (They got within 10 yards of the animal and could have killed it, but didn’t.)
Back in the desert, I was learning how fit our forefathers were the hard way: Any time I gained on the dog, he widened the gap. My own well-behaved pooch didn't want to stray too far from me. And so I searched for excuses and found this one: If our ancestors were serious runners, they probably had lean runner builds unlike my own, which after years of weight training is slightly overbuilt. Yeah, early humans might be fast, but they probably weren’t strong.
Wrong again: Early men and women weren’t just endurance freaks, they were also burly. Prehistoric agricultural women, for instance, seem to have had upper bodies as strong as those of today’s collegiate rowers, suggests a 2017 study from researchers at the University of Cambridge. The ancient women likely built that muscle from chores such as tilling dirt, digging holes, and carrying water, the researchers speculate.
So what caused early man (and woman) to morph from such utterly impressive physical specimens into a population of which only 20 percent meet our (rather modest) national fitness guidelines? Not surprisingly, tech is the biggest culprit—everything from the invention of the wheel to the Seamless app that saves you from cooking dinner: “Often the technologies we develop [exist] to save us from physical effort,” says David A. Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona. “Mechanized transportation, chairs...all end up reducing our activity levels.”
Hunter-gatherers of today provide a window into the activity level required to live a low-tech life, says Raichlen, who primarily studies the activity levels of the Hadza people in Tanzania, a 1,300-person group who choose to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. “We found that the Hadza spend about 75 minutes a day doing moderate to vigorous physical activity,” Raichlen says. “In two days, the Hadza meet the US national weekly guidelines for activity.”
High activity levels and a diet consisting mostly of foraged and hunted food may be why the Hadza tend to be healthier than Westerners. They also have a relative lack of autoimmune diseases, metabolic diseases, and colon cancer—possibly related to the fact that they have far more diverse gut bacteria than we do, according to researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
They’re active into old age, too: “Hadza are maintaining high activity levels in their 60s and 70s, whereas physical activity levels in the west tend to nosedive as we get older,” Raichlen says. Research shows that fitness level is a better predictor of your risk of death than established risk factors like smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
As for me, any time Stockton and I had the dog in sight, he’d eye us, yap, and scurry into the horizon. My problem isn’t just that I’m slow, I’m also ignorant. “Everyone thinks that persistence hunting is a purely physical act,” Liebenberg says. “We underestimate the intellectual side of it.” Persistence hunting, he says, also requires that you understand animal behavior and biology, land patterns, tracking, pacing, and far more—knowledge of which I, and most modern humans, have little of.
I couldn’t read this dog’s tracks, and I made incorrect assumptions about his next moves. This caused me to spend too much energy charging up hills, only to see the dog had gone in an entirely different direction.
Which brings me back to feeling sick. Thankfully, I didn't vomit, but I abandoned the chase, admitting defeat. Stockton and I casually jogged out of the desert, back home to the kitchen, where we opened the fridge for a cold bottle of water. It’s then that it occured to me that my ancestors also had more skin in the game. An unsuccessful hunt meant going to bed hungry.
As for the dog? We were able to drive him out of the desert, at least—back towards civilization. Days later, I spotted a “found dog” sign on a nearby telephone pole. It featured his yappy mug.
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