June 06, 2011

Running (Yes, Running) after Pronghorn Antelope

We are told that American pronghorn antelope evolved their speed--60 mph in a sprint--in order evade a species of cheetah no longer found on this continent.

What happens when a group of marathoners training in New Mexico decide to see if they can run them down in the old, old, old hominid style?
Among other services, the tireless Romero showed the runners where to find antelope-hunting permits—they paid $985 for a tag on Craigslist [???]—and explained a few laws the men would have to obey. They'd be required to stay within the roughly five square miles of ranchland we'd received permission to use, and they could pursue only a male antelope with horns taller than its ears. Assuming they actually succeeded in chasing a buck to the point of exhaustion and still felt the resolve to kill it, a licensed hunter would dispatch the animal with a pistol shot. The use of a gun or bow is required, since New Mexico doesn't allow human-hurled projectiles, sticks, or bare hands to be used as hunting weapon.
Andrew Musuva would have preferred a fist-size rock. That's what the 40-year-old Kenyan—who starred in a Subway commercial that aired ahead of last year's New York City Marathon—used to coldcock a kudu after a long chase 20 years ago in his home country. Because he's the only runner with experience in this enterprise, which is known as persistence hunting, he's become the group's unofficial leader. With him is his friend and co-conspirator Marc Esposito, a 33-year-old physical-therapy technician who's carrying his hunting license and Romero's handgun in his backpack. . . .
The men are testing a much-debated scientific notion about when and how ­humans became hunters. Between two and three million years ago, when our australo­pithecine ancestors ventured out of the forests and onto the protein-rich African savanna, they were prey more often than hunter. They gathered plant-based foods, just as their primate brethren did. Then something changed. They began running after game with long, steady strides. Evolutionary biologists like Harvard's Dan Lieberman think the uniquely human capacity for endurance running is a distant remnant of prehistoric persistence hunting.
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