In a new book called Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall explores an interesting theory that humans have evolved to be distance runners. Woven into the story of a running tribe called the raramuri of the Copper Canyons of Mexico, McDougall explores the research from human evolutionary biologists Daniel Lieberman and Dennis Bramble. The basic theory is that humans have evolved as bipedal animals with the specific capacity for endurance running that is not shared by other primates such as chimpanzees. It’s a very seductive idea to distance runners to think that we’re just doing what we so naturally do. In fact, we have evolved to do exactly this, so we’re really doing it old school! And to top it off, the McDougall book has gotten hundreds of runners interested in barefoot running, which is put forth as a far more natural way of running than in overbuilt shoes. Biomechanically this is a seductive idea as well, one that I’ve had fair success in implementing in my own running. (I’m up to around 12 miles comfortably in nothing but foot-form fitting slippers.)
Recently the find of an Ardipithecus ramidus, or Ardi, was unveiled to the public. Ardi is 4.4 million years old (Myo), far older than Lucy (an Australopithecus afarensis), who is a mere 3.3 Myo. I wonder whether or not the features of Homo sapiens (us!) that are posited to be beneficial for endurance running are found in these precursors to Homo.
For science and running geeks interested in reading some of the work done on the evolution of humans as endurance runners, see this Nature review by Lieberman and Bramble. A few other articles by the same authors exist, accessible via PubMed, and that review points to several good places to look for other relevant work.