Persistence hunting is a hunting technique in which hunters use a combination of running and tracking to pursue prey to the point of exhaustion. While humans can sweat to reduce body heat, their quadrupedal prey would need to slow from a gallop in order to pant.
Today, persistence hunting is very rare and seen only in a few groups such as Kalahari bushmen and the Tarahumara or Raramuri people of Northern Mexico. The technique requires endurance running – running long distances for extended periods of time - and among primates, endurance running is only seen in humans. Persistence hunting is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of human hunting, having evolved 2 million years ago.
Persistence hunting in human evolution
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The persistence hunt may well have been the first form of hunting practiced by hominids. It is likely that this method of hunting evolved before humans invented projectile weapons, such as darts, spears, or slings. Since they could not kill their prey from a distance and were not fast enough to catch the animal, one reliable way to kill it would have been to run it down over a long distance.
In this regard, one has to bear in mind that, as hominids adapted to bipedalism they would have lost some speed, becoming less able to catch prey with short, fast charges. They would, however, have gained endurance and become better adapted to persistence hunting. Although many mammals sweat, few have evolved to use sweating for effective thermoregulation, humans and horses being notable exceptions. This coupled with relative hairlessness would have given human hunters an additional advantage by keeping their bodies cool in the midday heat.
Humans also are uniquely able to carry water to drink while hunting.
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During the persistence hunt an antelope, such as a kudu, is not shot or speared from a distance, but simply run down in the midday heat. Depending on the specific conditions, hunters of the central Kalahari will chase a kudu for about two to five hours over 25 to 35 km (16 to 22 mi) in temperatures of about 40 to 42 °C (104 to 108 °F). The hunter chases the kudu, which then runs away out of sight. By tracking it down at a fast running pace the hunter catches up with it before it has had enough time to rest in the shade. The animal is repeatedly chased and tracked down until it is too exhausted to continue running. The hunter then kills it at close range with a spear.
Persistence hunting among cultural groups
The persistence hunt is still practised by hunter-gatherers in the central Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, and David Attenborough's documentary The Life of Mammals (program 10, "Food For Thought") showed a bushman hunting a kudu antelope until it collapsed. It is thought that the Tarahumara natives of northwestern Mexico in the Copper Canyon area may have also practiced persistence hunting.
Persistence hunting has even been used against the fastest land animal, the cheetah. In November 2013, four Somali-Kenyan herdsmen from northeast Kenya successfully used persistence hunting in the heat of the day to capture cheetahs who had been killing their goats.
The technique of persistence hunting have evolved on various levels in different parts of the world. From the middle ages, we know of the technique as parforce hunting taken from the French parforce meaning 'with force'. In parforce hunting, the game is run up and exhausted by using a combination of mounted hunters and packs of dogs. When it is down, a selected hunter approach and kills it with a hunting dagger and no firearms are used whatsoever. It was often seen as honorary to be allowed the final deathblow. This hunting method was adopted widely across Europe by the royalty and nobility and large deer parks are still around, as living witnesses of this specific hunting sports former popularity. Parforce hunting is illegal nowadays.
- Bernd Heinrich's book Why We Run, Harper Collins, 2002, p. 128.
- Cursorial hunting
- Tracking (hunting)
- Scott Carrier's book Running After Antelope describes the author's attempt at a persistence hunt in Middle America
- D.M. Bramble and D.E. Lieberman, "Endurance running and the evolution of Homo" (PDF), Nature, 432: 345-353, November 18, 2004.
- Ingfei Chen, "Born to Run", Discover, May 2006.
- Louis Liebenberg, (2006) "Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers", Current Anthropology, 47:6.
- Carrier, David, R."The Energetic Paradox of Human Running and Hominid Evolution". Current Anthropology, Vol.25, № 4, August–October 1984
- Louis Liebenberg, "The Relevance of Persistence Hunting to Human Evolution.", Journal of Human Evolution. December, 2008; 55(6): 1156-9. See also comments by Jennifer Frederick and Jeff Kersten 
- "Food For Thought", BBCi, The Life of Mammals, Programme 10
- McDougall, Christopher, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, New York, 2009.
- , BBC News
- Mike Dash (28 January 2013). "For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II". Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 16 March 2014. "Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion."
- Attenborough, David (2002). "Program 10: Food For Thought" (pdf). Documentary The Life of Mammals. BBC. This documentary shows a bushman hunting a kudu antelope until it collapsed.
- "The Barefoot Professor". Nature Publishing Group. Daniel Lieberman talks about persistence hunting and barefoot running
- "Russian Family Cut Off for 40 Years from Human Contact". Smithsonian. Mentions that the family "lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion."