Persistence Hunting

Posted: April 30, 2011 in Environment, History, Nomenclature

Idle conjecture on two subjects crops up continually in the blogs I frequent: the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and mechanisms of competition among and within species. Beyond the basic frameworks, arguments tend to proceed with astonishing confidence that by virtue of a mere thought experiment, often extrapolation from some scientific report also based on conjecture, we can uncover and know details of how hunter-gathers lived and thought or how certain human behaviors confer advantages that in turn allow natural selection to amplify those attributes over time, both today and in antiquity. I remain spectacularly unconvinced by most arguments offered by novices about these subjects, who typically tread in armed with more hubris than evidence. Some ideas manage to be plausible and exciting enough not to be discarded out of hand, but they suffice more as theories than as facts proven or adopted via consensus.

So I was especially intrigued by a story in Outside Magazine about persistence hunting, where hunters don’t outrun their prey in short races so much as persist over a period of hours to wear down their prey, which eventually collapse and are then easy to finish off. Follow the link if you want additional details in an unnecessarily protracted form, but long story short, the folks at Outside set up a trial in New Mexico to see whether marathoners and other endurance runners could actually outlast a pronghorn antelope on the run and hunt it down. The runners succeeded, though they didn’t dispatch the animal at the end.

David Attenborough has a YouTube video on the same subject featuring San bushmen and an African kudu:

To say the very least, I’m impressed that persistence hunting is doable, not just an idle thought experiment, and awed by the physical prowess of the runners. How prevalent this hunting technique was back in the Stone Age is still an open question, but as modern-day practitioners demonstrate, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

  1. A strategy adopted by many animals too of course. Can be made slightly easier by slow-acting poisons.

    Most of the naif hunter-gatherer stuff is just wish fulfillment…

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