The notion that modern man may have evolved from more primitive ancestors possessing the ability to hunt by running down antelope to exhaustion on the African plains, called persistence hunting, I found preposterous. Thus hunting, accomplished by endurance running, was one premise for the popular 2009 book by Christopher McDougall, "Born to Run." He conveyed to the public that nature intended man to run barefoot or only on a minimalist soled shoe.
In a 2004 study, biologist Dennis Bramble and paleontologist Daniel Lieberman reported that ape-like animals started walking upright on two feet four million years ago.
Over time, just two million years ago, early human ancestors branched off the evolutionary tree from chimpanzees and apes, developing structures enabling long distance running - now called endurance running - which is similar to running a marathon today.
Minimalist footwear is available to experience the benefits of barefoot running while offering protection from sharp stones and hot asphalt roads.
Four unique physical features of this early human included our present day large gluteus maximus or buttock muscle and strong back muscles to hold the body erect. Also, a long Achilles tendon generates mechanical advantage for push off while an arched foot, supported by strong ligaments and small foot muscles, generates spring like a trampoline at push off during running. These features permitted humans to run for hours, although at a slow pace.
With the ability to endurance run, ancestors chased a herd of antelope, like the kudu, on open plains. They separated out one or two antelope that ran ahead to rest in the shade. Meanwhile, the running hunters eventually caught up and chased the antelope farther. The chase likely continued for two to five hours over 10 to 15 miles until the antelope dropped from exhaustion. Without the ability to sweat, antelope exposed to 104 to 108 degree Fahrenheit temperatures on the African plains became exhausted from overheating. The human hunters with relatively hairless bodies and sweat glands stayed cool, enabling them to run continuously until reaching the exhausted antelope ending the "persistence hunt."
The hunt provided a diet of protein and fat, which scientists feel promoted the rapid growth in human brain size about two million years ago. Nobody knows for sure, but the physical features enabling endurance running likely contributed to the cerebral evolution of modern man and ensured his survival.
Chasing an antelope to exhaustion may be extraordinary, but the South African, Louis Liebenberg, proved it was possible. He lived with Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa for four years. In 1990 while on foot, he accompanied four hunters while they chased down a kudu antelope. Later, following the same four hunters in a vehicle, he watched three successful running kudu hunts out of eight attempts.
Man likely was persistence hunting by barefoot endurance running for two million years, supplementing his plant diet with meat. Only in the last 40,000 years did bow and arrows, spears, nets, and traps develop to harvest animals for meat.
The art of barefoot running was lost to most of the world except in Africa when Abebi Bakila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon running barefoot. In 1985, the South African woman, Zola Budd, bettered by five seconds the woman's 5,000 meter record also running barefoot.
Todd Beyer from Seattle has run 100 marathons barefoot. Today minimalist running shoes, merely a rubber-soled shoe or the recent Vibram five-toe shoe, are considered equal to barefoot running but provide protection from sharp stones and hot asphalt. The author, McDougall, states, "Running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot." He claims modern running shoes support the arch and cushion the heel, contributing to disuse atrophy of small foot muscles and ligaments supporting the arch.
The local high school boys and girls track and cross country coach and runner, Robert Rappole, learned of the benefits of barefoot running, specifically stronger muscles, bones and ligaments many years ago. His runners training barefoot on the soccer or football field developed more speed, more endurance and fewer injuries. In spite of successful teams he has been called unconventional, but how can one argue with the idea humans have survived in this world running barefoot for two million years?