A Fun-Loving Guide to the Natural World for Kids and Adults

Persistence Hunting

“Well, I had no idea,” I said.

We put down the book we were reading — Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  Among other things, Mr. McDougall talks about ‘persistence hunting’ — a mode of hunting that is almost forgotten today. The idea is that humans run their prey down — which seems quite impossible when you consider that humans seem pretty slow compared to most other animals.

I had said ‘I had no idea’, because a couple of years ago I decided to embark on a strange and rather crazy quest. Spurred on by a sort of mid-life crisis and wanting to test my physical limits, I decided to chase after and catch a wild turkey with my bare hands. I devoted a year to the endeavor, training harder than I had ever trained and spending the whole winter chasing turkeys in the hills and valleys behind Sweetwater. The contest didn’t really seem fair, considering that turkeys can run at 25 mph. A world-class sprinter, at the most, might clock in at 27-28 mph, but I’m not a world-class sprinter. And if ground speed isn’t enough, they’re capable of 55 mph flight. Despite being rather outclassed, I had some great adventures, and wrote a book about the whole affair. Now I have an agent and we’re in the process of finding a publisher. On her advice, I can’t tell you the result of my quest, but I can tell you that I’m pretty impressed by the idea of persistence hunting (my quest was to catch a turkey and let it go, so I wouldn’t really call it ‘hunting’, but the basic idea is the same).

You see, despite the fact that we’re not very impressive sprinters, humans are superb endurance runners. In distance races against horses, humans often come out the victors. Some people are suggesting that during human evolution, it might not have been our intelligence that gave us our best advantage (there is some evidence that Neanderthals were the more intelligent species), but rather our running ability, which allowed us to secure game. The remarkable truth is that humans may very well be the best endurance runners on the planet — outpacing all other species.  This video records a persistence hunt by San tribesmen, and gives an overview of how a human can run down a Kudu (a type of antelope).

I discovered that many of the elements of persistence hunting that Mr. McDougall wrote about (many of which are also portrayed in the video above), had come naturally to me during my turkey quest. Toward the end of the winter, I began to ‘think’ like a turkey, and stayed on the turkeys’ trails for long periods by tracking and ‘intuiting’ where the turkey might have flown. In effect, I had observed them long enough and spent enough time in their environment that I understood the way that they reacted when they fled danger.

Rebecca and I are now becoming ultra-running aficionados. We’re going for longer and longer distances, often barefoot, and are discovering that running can be incredibly enjoyable when you relax into it and just let your legs carry you over the hills. It’s an amazing thought to consider that our ancestors might have used this skill to bring meat home to their families. We may not be using it for hunting, but there’s something magical about running over the ground and wondering if, indeed, we are following the pathways of an ancient tradition that shaped human evolution.

Read Kenton’s Latest Nature Column Article in the Dunn County News! (Sorry, the online version is lacking Rebecca’s awesome photography)

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10 Responses to “Persistence Hunting”

  1. Hi Kenton,

    I can’t wait to read your book! I’ve always considered myself an adventurous sort, but I’ve never attempted anything like what you’ve done.

    Yes, there is growing acceptance of the importance of endurance running in the evolution of the human body form. There was a great paper in Nature a few years ago about this here if you’re interested (I can send a pdf if you can’t access the link).

    One quibble; Neaderthals did have slightly larger brains than modern humans, but their relatively simple tool technology and lack of cultural artifacts indicating a significant use of symbolism in their society makes it hard to consider them as possibly more intelligent. They may not have been dumb, but they surely didn’t think the way we do.

    Glad to see you back after your mini-break.

    regards-ted

  2. Hello Ted! Thanks for the great link! I was able to read the first few paragraphs, but it looks like I can’t access the main article. If you’d be willing to send a pdf, I’d be very grateful! My email is spiderslippers@yahoo.com (you might have another email for me that you already use, and that one works just as well).

    Thanks as well for bringing up more info about the Neanderthals. To me, it’s been interesting to watch our understanding of Neanderthals ‘evolve’. The name used to be synonymous with a rather dim-witted approach to life, but now more and more evidence is surfacing that suggests that they were more intelligent than previously thought. Here’s a great article -

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/neanderthals-were-a-lot-more-intelligent-than-they-looked-662312.html

    I wonder if you might be on to the heart of the matter when you say ‘they surely didn’t think the way we do.’ As we come to better understand different types of intelligence in both humans and other species, perhaps we might come to new theories regarding the way our ancestors processed the world around them intellectually.

    On a side note, have you seen the recent articles about a human perhaps killing a Neanderthal?

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32042037/ns/technology_and_science-science/

    Perhaps despite Neanderthals being bigger and stronger, when it came time for the SmackDown, humans had the upper hand. Whatever the case, it’s certainly going to be interesting to watch as more and more evidence unveils the mystery of the human/Neanderthal relationship!

  3. Amazing post, fascinating commentary. I’m really impressed that you could run like that.

  4. Thanks Jackie — to be honest, sometimes I wasn’t even running. I called it running, but that winter had some extremely deep snow, and often I was wading through hip-deep drifts. So instead of running, it felt more like swimming through molasses =)

  5. Hi Kenton,

    I’ve been a passionate (though strictly avocational) student of paleoanthropology since childhood (boy, did my classmates think I was weird!). I even have a collection of life-sized replicas of important fossil hominid skulls. They’re really cool!

    Your perception of differences in processing is on the mark. More and more evidence is emerging that shows Neanderthals were anything but dull-witted “cavemen” as was long thought. Still, their tool technology showed almost no growth during their long history in Europe until near the end when the encountered the newly developed Upper Paleolithic toolwork of moderns. Even then their attempts to copy modern tools were modest at best.

    As a side note, I don’t really consider the superiority of modern human’s toolwork to be the only reason for the Neanderthal demise. Our species’ predilection for waging war against and enslaving other members of our own species is well documented - I’ve no doubt that moderns 40,000 years ago were quite ruthless in their contacts with Neanderthals. Despite being accomplished hunters of big game - a lifestyle that requires considerable intelligence and coordination among teams, perhaps Neanderthals were “gentle giants” without our warfaring tendencies.

    I’ll send you the pdf tomorrow, as I have access to Nature from my work computer. Thanks for the links you provided - very interesting subject indeed.

    I’m still in awe that you attempted to catch a turkey!

  6. Dear Ted,

    We always appreciate the expertise and open-mindedness you bring to every subject you deal with. Your idea about ‘gentle giants’ is intensely interesting — indeed, it inspired a long conversation between Rebecca and I as we considered the possibility. And am I correct that when you say ‘big game’ you mean REALLY big game — as in mammoths? It’s simply amazing that a group of hominids, without modern tools, could accomplish such a feat!

    We wish we could see your collection! And it would be so interesting to hear your take on the Ardi discoveries. Have you considered a post on the subject? If you feel it wouldn’t fit well on your current blog, we’d be honored if you’d write a guest post on the subject and we could post it on Wild About Nature.

    Finally, thanks for sending the pdf — can’t wait to read it! I’m flattered that you are impressed with the turkey-chasing =)

  7. Hi Kenton,

    Yes, “really” big game would include mammoths! Neaderthals were truly an amazing, though sadly dead-end, branch of human evolution.

    The Ardi discoveries are fantastic - it is amazing how many fossils have been discovered in recent years. I believe the number of truly significant finds in past 10 years surpasses the entire remaining span of the field of paleoanthroplogy. I hadn’t thought about writing a post on them, but that is a good idea since I was, in fact, planning some posts for this winter (when the bug picture supply is low) on my visit to the “Broom Room” at the Transvaal Museum in South Africa. Some of the country’s most important fossil hominids are stored - including the famous “Mrs. Ples” - and I was fortunate to get a private tour of the vault when I traveled there for a collecting trip with one of the museum’s insect curators. I can truly say it was a near-religious experience!

  8. Dear Ted,

    How fascinating to have been to the ‘Broom Room’ at the Transvaal Museum! And a personal tour, to boot! That must have truly been amazing beyond words.

    You have us very excited, now, about a possible paleoanthropology post on your site — it’s obvious from what you wrote that there’s a lot more than ‘Ardi’ going on. Just another reason for us to be excited for winter =)

  9. Hi Kenton and Rebecca,
    This discussion on persistence hunting has been fascinating. My whole family, kids included, enjoyed watching the video - we’re big David Attenborough fans - although I watched the end alone. The death of the kudu was hard to watch, but the tribesman’s respect for the animal was touching to witness. I was wondering about the idea of expenditure of energy versus energy to be gained. Eight hours is a long time and that’s just one way travel. What about having to get that carcass back to the family in a timely manner before decomposition sets in? There’s also got to be danger in attracting other predators.

    Good luck with your own hunting trials. Looking forward to seeing your book.

  10. Hello Cecilia,

    I should have pointed out that my quest was to catch a turkey and then release it unharmed. As a near-vegetarian, I’m very sensitive to causing animals harm, and this quest actually created some deep contemplation in me as I wrestled with whether I might injure the turkey I tried to catch (and, to be honest, whether the whole idea was cruel since I would be frightening turkeys just to fulfill my rather crazy goal). In the end, I found that I learned a great deal and fostered such a connection with the landscape I was running through, as well as with the turkeys I was chasing, and came to the conclusion that when we immerse ourselves in nature we can really find some deep connections that aren’t always available when we simply observe.

    I’ve wrestled with the same issues regarding eating meat, and am considering going hunting next year (bow and arrow) with my brother so that we can directly experience taking a life. It’s so easy for me to just go to the store and buy some hamburger and not think that this was once a cow, and I think it would be a powerful experience to have to kill what I eat — especially since it would be emotionally difficult for me. I know that many people, who are hunters or farmers, already have this connection to their food, but I’ve found that when I’m not living out in the woods, it’s easy to slip into forgetfulness.

    We’re so glad you enjoyed the video — we agree that the end was difficult, but there was something beautiful about this animal being killed so intimately. We wondered the same thing about energy expenditure, as well! I believe that historically (and perhaps still today), there was a group of runners who would be involved. Eventually the fastest runners would go forward and do the final ‘running down’, but the others would soon catch up so that the work of taking the animal back or doing the butchering could be shared.

    Sweetwater,
    Kenton

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