The evolution of the long-distance runner

In Nature, last week, a review of the role of long-distance running in the evolution of the human form. I guess the importance of endurance-based running in human evolution explains the popularity of jogging…

Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Dennis M. Bramble & Daniel E. Lieberman. Nature 432, 345 – 352 (18 November 2004)
Abstract: Striding bipedalism is a key derived behaviour of hominids that possibly originated soon after the divergence of the chimpanzee and human lineages. Although bipedal gaits include walking and running, running is generally considered to have played no major role in human evolution because humans, like apes, are poor sprinters compared to most quadrupeds. Here we assess how well humans perform at sustained long-distance running, and review the physiological and anatomical bases of endurance running capabilities in humans and other mammals. Judged by several criteria, humans perform remarkably well at endurance running, thanks to a diverse array of features, many of which leave traces in the skeleton. The fossil evidence of these features suggests that endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, originating about 2 million years ago, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.

Quoting selectively, for your enjoyment…

The ER [Endurance Running] capabilities of Homo raise several additional questions, the first being whether long-distance running was an important behaviour in human evolution or merely the by-product of enhanced walking capabilities. Traditional arguments have favoured the latter hypothesis;

Yet walking alone cannot account for many of the other derived features in Table 1 because the mass-spring mechanics of running, which differ fundamentally from the pendular mechanics of walking, require structural specializations for energy storage and stabilization that have little role in walking

Considering all the evidence together, it is reasonable to hypothesize that Homo evolved to travel long distances by both walking and running.

ER may have helped hunters get close enough to throw projectiles, or perhaps even to run some mammals to exhaustion in the heat. Although such demanding strategies have been occasionally documented among modern foragers (see ref. 61), they might have been too energetically expensive and low-yield for the benefits to have outweighed the costs.


Another hypothesis to explore is that ER was initially useful for effective scavenging in the open, semi-arid environments apparently inhabited by early Homo. If early hominids were regularly scavenging marrow, brain and other tissues from carcasses, then ER would have helped hominids to compete more effectively for these scattered and ephemeral resources.

Today, ER is primarily a form of exercise and recreation, but its roots may be as ancient as the origin of the human genus, and its demands a major contributing factor to the human body form.

One reply on “The evolution of the long-distance runner”

Very interesting stuff. I was also reading about this on the BBC website. As a (one time, very poor) marathon runner I would add that I found it much easier (and knew other runners who agreed with me) to run at a varying pace, than at a constant pace. Changing pace seems to change the tensions on the system and its better for you. As a kid when I was late for things we were often told to run 100 paces, then walk 100. I am inclined to subscribe to the idea that we have a natural pre-disposition for a run-walk (also called “fartlek” by runners) means of getting about. But why? Did we walk normally and run to chase prey (or avoid becoming prey)? The theory that it was for effecient scavenging makes some sense. Personally I suspect it counts as evidence for football (soccer) having been a part of the human culture for a lot longer than previously believed.

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