In the past we knew how to run for our livelihood

Business Day – 8 NOVEMBER 2016 – by SHAUN SMILLIE 

business-day-article

Louis Liebenberg tracker Karel Benadie (Rolex/Eric Vandeville)

In the midday heat of the central Kalahari, Louis Liebenberg found himself taking part in the final days of a tradition dating back 2-million years. The anthropologist was near a place called Lone Tree, tracking a healthy kudu with a band of San Bushmen, when the decision was made to run the animal down.

Initially, Liebenberg was told to go back to camp as chasing game in 40°C plus heat bought with it the dangers of heat stroke. But the academic convinced them to let him tag along — a decision that nearly cost him his life.

For the next couple of hours, Liebenberg watched as the San tracked the animal at a run, as the hunt developed into a tussle between the fleet-footed kudu and the hunters with the advantage of a far more efficient cooling system.

Every time they caught up with the animal, it would run off. But the kudu’s exhaustion and heat stress began to show in its tracks — it was kicking up more sand and its stride was shortening. It tried to seek shade in
the thickets.

One of the hunters, !Nate, got close enough to the kudu to easily kill it with the thrust of a spear. But he gave up on his quarry when he realised that the academic they had reluctantly invited on the hunt was showing signs of heat stroke. Liebenberg had to be helped back to camp.

The anthropologist had become one of the few outsiders to experience what has since been known as a persistence hunt. What he observed convinced him that humans had probably evolved the feat of endurance running over 2-million years to chase down game.

Understanding that humans are running beings allows scientists to reassess the capability of all humans.

Liebenberg asked the San why, after years of extensive study, no one knew about persistence hunts. They replied that no academic had ever bothered to ask. People only wanted to know about their bows and arrows, they said.

The San, Liebenberg explains, are able to carry out the hunts because of a unique set of adaptations that gave them the edge over the kudu. Besides being able to sweat more than any other species, they are hairless, have long limbs and have a very energy-efficient run.

Man is so efficient in this discipline, that humans have been known to outrun horses over long distances. But the problem, says Prof Dan Lieberman of Harvard University, is that increasingly sedentary lifestyles are masking this talent.

“We are now learning how much we get into trouble by avoiding this kind of activity,” he explains. “Not running [or doing its modern equivalent in the gym] increases the rate at which we age, and causes us to get sick from a wide range of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, Alzheimer’s and more.”

The new frontier in understanding endurance running is examining the effects it has on the brain. It is already well known that running helps in combating depression.

But human brains might have been given a far more important evolutionary nudge from running and hunting, Liebenberg believes. Cognitive thinking, he suspects, has its origins in persistence hunting.

There are two theories about why humans developed the ability to run. One is that they had to travel quickly over long distances to get to predator kill sites so they could scavenge meat before other carnivores arrived. The other theory is that they developed it to hunt.

“The ability to speculate, with its creative hypothetico-deductive reasoning are the origins of scientific theory,” says Liebenberg.

But scientists believe that there are other psychological adaptations, that emerged back when human ancestors were learning to run. One of these is the holy grail of sports performance — a bubble of super concentration that is usually seen when competitors are facing life-threatening conditions.

It is known as the flow, a trance-like state in which athletes are totally focused. Sport scientist Prof Tim Noakes says the flow is seen among downhill skiers, and surfers who take on monster killer waves.

“It is a case of, if they are not in the flow, they will die.”

Noakes says athletes in other disciplines are tapping into the flow. He believes that Wayde van Niekerk was in the flow when he won gold in the 400m race at the Rio Olympics.

“When he finished that race, he didn’t seem to know where he was, he was so focused,” he says. “It might as well be that the flow developed back when we were hunting.”

Liebenberg’s persistence hunt more than 25 years ago was probably one of the last. The San who took him on the hunt, are now old and the new generation, plagued by alcohol abuse, prefer using dogs and horses to chase down game.

In other parts of the world, this method of hunting is
rarely practised.

Some Tarahumara Native Americans still hunt deer this way and the Hadza in Tanzania are known to take part in occasional persistence hunts.

“I suspect, however, that within a generation persistence hunting will be gone because of habitat change, regulations and the loss of [tracking] skill,” Liebenberg says.

But the biological and psychological mechanics that enabled these ancient hunts still lie within all humans and experts believe they can still be tapped in the search for a healthier life.

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