Back to basics, for real – Part II

I must admit I was surprised—and saddened—by the violence and contempt of some comments to my article “Back to basics, for real” published on the StrongFirst blog. All I wanted was to share my opinion on a common topic in hopes of maybe helping someone to “cut through the noise”, to provoke some thoughts and maybe, to start a discussion. Not to be shouted and spit at. Apparently, I should’ve shut up and only talk with the permission of those who know better like that “survival instructor” whose comment is still visible on the SF Facebook page and who is “tired of urban people”. What’s worse: those comments could be avoided if only their authors paid attention when they were reading the article. It seems the notion of “common activities” has totally escaped them.

General points

1. I wouldn’t bother answering, but I’m kind of fond of “urban people”. So, on their behalf… While in the military, I was stationed in Djibouti, a small country in Eastern Africa, the very region some of the world’s best long-distance runners come from. One of our missions was to escort our Chief Medical officer when he provided assistance to people dwelling in the desert. While he was getting busy, we would stay by the trucks or patrol around. The natives would not pay us any attention, which made us ideally positioned to observe their habits and their everyday life. I have never, not once seen them running.

2. Several of my friends were stationed in French Guyana and regularly met the natives still living in the tropical forest there. One of the guys has actually befriended a native and came to spend all his leaves in his jungle village. No running reported either.

3. Totally different situation: for the past four or five years I’ve been friends with a homeless guy leaving on the riverbank near my company. Not the type who’d spend hours at the door of some social service waiting for a bowl of soup. This guy grows his own veggies, fishes, and scavenges around the neighborhood. Guess what? He never runs either.

So, aside from not running, what physical activities are COMMON to all those guys? Despite being separated by half the world, they all:

  1. Walk a lot.
  2. Lift stuff (stones in Africa, logs in South America, anything and everything here in the city).
  3. Climb (rocky slopes in Africa, trees in South America, fences in the city).

I believe that those are our most common natural physical activities in a “primitive” (as in “cut from the joys of civilisation”) state/situation. They are now and they were for an extended period of time where they’ve influenced our anatomy and physiology. I believe that from the point of view of physical health, walking and strength training (with and without weights) should be the bulk of anyone’s GPP. All other stuff (long-distance running, yoga, dancing etc.) is totally welcome as long as it doesn’t take over the first two.

Particular comments

In the comments to my post on StrongFirst blog, Dave Smith pointed me to Daniel Lieberman’s presentation. He’s stating that human body is actually well-adapted to running long distance. That presentation included extended reference to what’s called the “persistent hunting”. That is the particular way of hunting proper to few tribes in the Southern Africa. It consists in a team of half a dozen men (or less) first scaring an animal, and then following it through the savannah, forcing it to run almost without stopping, eventually running it to death. Here are those videos so you can judge by yourself before reading my answer:

Daniel Lieberman

Persistent hunting

My answer:

Thanks a lot for the links! Dan Lieberman is brilliant. Whether one agrees with him or not, his presentations are a real pleasure to listen to.

That being said, I remain unconvinced. And as hard and bold as might be the arguing with a Harvard PhD, I’m about to dare. Just for the record: I am not professing the final truth, neither here nor in my article. I am merely expressing my personal opinion supported by arguments—which I’m ready to change if presented with the arguments more solid than mines.

So, here are few remarks on “persistent hunting” and more generally, on human evolution and adaptation.

  1. I might be wrong, but the “persistent hunting” seems highly dependent on restrictive external factors, such as the environmental factor (climate, ground, and landscape), which seems crucial for the “cost” part of the “cost/benefit” equation—injury risk, exposure, and energy cost of the long distance running are different from sand to rocks to swamp to snow
  2. Even more restrictive is the eventual presence/absence of the “concurrence”—bigger and stronger or more numerous predators. The linked video was shot in the Kalahari desert. In slightly more humid regions of Africa hyenas are well known to systematically attack lions to rip off their kill. That is to say that the “persistent hunting” and thus, the long-distance running might not have been widespread enough to provoke adaptations but locally. Actually, it might be quite the opposite: our ancestors would already be “adapted” enough for running to undertake such a form of hunting when conditions presented themselves. More on it below.
  3. I might be wrong, but Dan Lieberman presents the “persistent hunting” in a way that makes one think that all Homo Erectus were running “from 9 to 15 km a day”. He may have his own sources, but in the very same video he uses for his presentation (the one you linked in your comment) the story is slightly different. There are three hunters hunting for the whole tribe and only one of them—the “best runner”—actually runs down and kills the scared animal. Women and most men of the tribe do not hunt/run. So, running is the primary activity of, well, runners. Or would be—if they didn’t have to bring their kill back to their tribe. I’d bet they were walking, not running back home.
  4. I might be wrong, but even if the “persistent hunting” was a widespread hunting method, to surmise it provoked adaptation you must be sure the hunters/runners were also the breeders. As we know, in animal groups the healthiest females breed with the group’s Alpha and possibly his lieutenants. Alpha is usually the biggest/meanest male, enough so to scare/fight off the contenders. Or the meanest and smartest. Anyway, smart or mean enough to delegate the strenuous and ungrateful tasks (such as running down animals all alone in the heat, while the tribe is “unattended”) to his “soldiers” (I suspect not even lieutenants but, of course, I might be wrong).But even if runners/hunters did breed, all other things equal, their injury and hence early death rate were probably higher than average, which mechanically weeded out their genes from the gene pool over a long period of time.That means our skill/capacity in long distance running should diminish over a long period of time, while on the contrary our sprinting skill/capacity should rise because better sprinters were better survivors: remember that joke, “You don’t need to run faster than the lion, only faster than the other guy”? Natural selection.
  5. I might be wrong, but to illustrate his theories Dan Lieberman mostly uses as example long-distance runners. Those are usually people who have freely selected that form of physical activity, stuck to it, and actually got good at it. All of which suppose predispositions, mainly anatomical/physiological. What about people “too heavy” for their height? Those, for example, who have naturally large and heavy bones? What are the long-term effects of the long-distance running on their health? Joint health, especially? I mean, we might be theoretically good at something and “adapted” to it, but that doesn’t necessarily means it’s good for us. Look at sitting.
  6. I might be wrong, but Dan Lieberman himself says this method of hunting started to decline with the invention of the throwing weapons somewhere around 300,000 years ago. Then another, hunting method took over and is still in use today: get close to the animal undetected, shoot/throw to injure, follow the blood trail (easier to track and does not require running), kill, carry home. So, from this point of view, in terms of “shaping the human body” over the last 100 000 of years (as I suggested in the article in reference to the age scientists give to our species, Homo Sapiens Sapiens) the “persistent hunting” would simply be irrelevant.
  7. I might be wrong, but there is a difference between “being adapted” and “having adapted”. Is our adaptation to long-distance running the result of extensive running during some period of our evolution? Or is it incidental to our adaptation to long-distance walking? I’m wondering. Dan Lieberman illustrates the difference between walking and running gaits showing the legs’ use as “inverted pendulum” in the first case and “springs” in the second. True but that implies walking on flat surface only. Actual walking in wilderness implies climbing up and down more or less steep slopes, hopping, jumping, even short sprints—hence, using the legs both as springs and “inverted pendulum”. Wouldn’t it prepare/“adapt” one for long-distance running? Actually, it makes me think about how we prepare for the Snatch Test. One will do a lot of Snatches—and ruin his/her shoulders. The other will do a lot of Swings and Get-ups and just a few Snatches to refine the technique—and nail the test with no problem.
  8. I might be wrong, but beyond all that looms the controversy of human origins. I won’t get into it here, this post already being way too long.

Thanks for reading.