By Robi Datattreya
In the ultra-runner world there is the belief that humans evolved into striding bipeds that excel at long-distance running in hot conditions because we needed those skills for outrunning antelopes – the so-called persistence hunting. Losing our fur and developing the ability to sweat from all over the body, allows us to cool our bodies in hot conditions. Antelopes are faster but cannot sweat all over, so the belief is that humans can outrun antelopes over long distances and in hot conditions.
As an ultra-runner I finished the Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan desert and knew how to run long distances in the heat. As a hunter I was intrigued by persistence hunting and how it was done. In my research I only found one short BBC documentary about the persistence hunt of San Bushmen (with a voice-over of David Attenborough). But it still remained a mystery how this persistence hunt was done.
In the academic literature, the assumption of persistence hunting as the way of hunting for the hunters/gatherers in the Stone Age is generally accepted. However no proof could be found of the persistence-hunting theory of our hunters/gathers ancestors. I could not find any other first-hand reports.
Enquiries with hunting lodges in southern Africa did not result in more information. Most outfitters did not respond to my enquiry about persistence hunting. The just ignored my email, while others said they had never heard about persistence hunting and did not believe it could be done. Asking San bushmen, the feedback was, “Yes it is possible, we used to do it.” When asking how and where, the discussion ended with, “We do not do it any more, you need to talk to the villagers deeper in the bush.” It became an obsession with me. Was persistence hunting hype or a myth, a lost skill or a hoax.
Phillip Hennings of the Khomas Highland hunting lodge, known for sustainable hunting had never done it, but was open to test the hypothesis. He and his most experienced professional hunter Ralf Liedkte were willing to accept the challenge, and preparations began. The assumption was that it would take 10km before we could find an animal, and we had to follow the tracks. We had to push it for 30km in the heat before it would get exhausted. The first 10km of the push would be the hardest part, when animals are fresh and much faster. After 10km we would probably get regular sight of the animal. Two bushmen would assist in tracking. When the animal got tired and we got regular sight of it, the ultra-runner – me – would be launched to push much harder and exhaust the animal.
As the ultra-runner/hunter, I started preparing for a 160km ultra-run over four days at temperatures between 30 and 40°C, with a 5kg backpack with water, food and equipment, more or less comparable with the Marathon des Sables.
For the challenge we chose sandy grounds for easier tracking, with bush not too thick for better sighting. The best time of the year was the rainy season, the Namibian summer. The rain would flush away the older tracks and the summer would bring the heat. Wild dogs that are persistent hunters in catching antelope, have the highest success rate during warm periods, according to research.
Depicted in rock paintings, the Stone Age hunter/gatherers hunted with spears. Therefore, my weapon should be the spear. A spear is not defined in Namibian hunting law, but after some number crunching we proved that the energy of a spear was higher than that of an arrow, which was allowed. The African antelopes are also known for their toughness and for fighting till the end, and can become very dangerous when they are wounded. The hunter/gatherers would know this – but I had no idea how wounded antelopes would behave. We decided to bring not only a spear, but also a hand gun for safety, powerful enough for a short-distance shot.
We could go for a big animal like the eland with a relatively small body surface area compared with body weight, or for a small animal with a relatively large surface that could lose heat. From research we could not find which was preferable. However, heavy animals leave better tracks to follow than light ones, so we decided to start tracking an eland which can weigh up to 1,000kg. Although the eland does not have as thick a skin as, for instance, an oryx, it will get very nasty when wounded. We hoped the soft sand in the rainy season would wear out the heavy animal quickly.
Every day began at 6:00 am, driving into the field to find eland or their tracks. If there was rain, no animal could be seen – they were all hidden in the bush and did not move. Even fresh tracks were flushed away. When the rain cleared it was Africa at its best – clean air, green leaves, flowers and the overwhelming smell of nature, all this on the red, damp, soft sand, like a beach at low tide. This new sand was ideal for following tracks. When we found a track, the two trackers and I started walking along it, and I got a crash course on tracking. Based on the droppings of the eland, we could estimate how long ago they passed and if we were closing in or not.
When we got sight of the animals, I as the ultra-runner was launched and started running, following the track with the 5kg backpack and a bushman spear. My confidence increased quickly over the first few kilometers as I could easily follow and keep running. The group of five bulls was smart. While following the tracks I suddenly ran into human footprints next to the fresh eland tracks. A second look made clear these were my own footprints – the elands had just made a full circle to confuse their predator. However, based on sightings and droppings, I could see I was closing in. I felt that the finish line of the ultra-marathon was getting closer, that it was a matter of time before the exhausted elands would give up.
Then the animals crossed a hill with stony ground, full of thick bush with sharp thorns. The stony ground made it very difficult to follow the track. My crash course on tracking brought me to beginner level and did not cover following tracks on stony ground. I had to wait for the bushman and the professional hunter to lead me over the hill and through the bush. Where they were dancing between the thorns, I was tearing my shirt and skin. On the sandy ground on the other side of the hill we could see the eland had taken a rest before taking the lead again. It was not only an ultra-run over an unknown distance, but also with an unknown number of stages.
After pushing the eland for some time again, they tired and I could spot them on a regular basis. They reached the fence and decided to climb a stony steep hill along the fence and lose the ultra-runner/hunter. The hill was full of lose stones and they kicked down many stones, which made a lot of noise. This time I could follow the noise instead of tracks. At the top of the hill, four eland moved to the left. Apparently the fifth one was exhausted and decided to go back down the hill along the fence, right towards me. I hid behind a bush waiting for the animal to come. It saw me earlier than I expected, and I froze for a second before throwing the spear. The result was that the eland jumped, fell through the fence and ran. I had managed to exhaust it, but could not finish the hunt successfully.
On the last day we decided to change plans. Instead of pushing the eland bulls on high alert with five pairs of eyes and ears, we decided we would go for a single old wildebeest bull, impressive with terrific horns. Wildebeest have their own territory, and his was in a more open area. After two and a half hours of chasing him, we were closing in quickly. From the marks in the sand we could see he often lay down under the trees. Suddenly he stopped, and at 75 meters away he was looking at us. Would he charge or run? I pulled the revolver from my backpack in case of a charge, but fortunately he turned and ran. From then on we got him in sight every five to 10 minutes at 50- to 100-meter distances. We got the spears ready in case we could get a chance. It was like finally approaching the finish line of the ultra-run, just before cut-off time.
Then the tracks of the wildebeest merged with the tracks of a herd of at least a 100 eland. Even for the very experienced bushmen it took quite some time to find where the bull had gone. When we found the tracks, the wildebeest had joined three other wildebeest that probably came with the eland herd. It was impossible to distinguish the exhausted bull from the three fresh wildebeest based on tracks. Three tired people – us – had no chance to chase a fresh wildebeest before sundown. As a result we gave up and asked to be picked up.
In the stunning African savanna it was by far the best ultra I have ever run. It was like the Berkley Marathon – you only have an indication when it starts, but you don’t know for sure until it actually does! The start is when you are launched at the first sighting of the animal. The route is its tracks. It is a challenge. You lose the tracks once in a while. You can run into herds of 150 springbok that spread and let you pass. When they jump, it is as if they fly over the bushes. You notice graceful giraffes nibbling leaves from tree tops. You see oryx, impala, kudu, rhino, elephant, and many other animals. You not know how far the persistence-hunt ultra will be. When you can follow the route and run fast, you exhaust the animal in probably half a marathon distance (21km). If you run slowly or lose the track, the distance will be at least a full marathon (42km) over soft sand – if you finish at all!
On the Namibian plains, at a height of 1,500m, I ran a total of 120km over four days and did not finish. After this we were convinced that persistence hunting is a lost skill!