Since a healthy antelope can run many times faster than a man, it is hard to imagine a human hunter being able to run down the animal, particularly in the blazing desert sun. Yet hunters in various cultures, among them the G/wi and the !Xo of the Central Kalahari Desert, have perfected techniques for doing just that. Louis Liebenberg has witnessed, and even participated in, long-distance running hunts with hunters who ultimately exhausted their prey until they could no longer flee. After several hours of running, the animals would finally just stand there and allow the hunter to walk up with spear.
George Silberbauer’s definitive book on the G/wi, Hunter & Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert, provides only a few words about their persistence hunting strategies, though he describes in detail their other techniques for killing their prey. He mentions that they sometimes spear animals they have run down, but “this technique of hunting is seldom used alone, as the chances of success are slender unless the quarry is weakened by injury, illness, or hunger and thirst” (1981: 215).
In a recent journal article, Liebenberg takes a very different perspective: persistence hunting can be quite effective. He first attempted to witness a hunt in the Kalahari in 1985, but he became separated from the hunters, who told him later how they ran down and killed a kudu, a large antelope. In August, 1990, he was able to keep up with the hunters on foot in order to document the experience; subsequently, he filmed their persistence hunting from moving vehicles.
The hunt is done during the hottest part of the day, while the temperature in the sun hovers between 39 and 42 degrees Celsius (102.2 to 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The hunters drink as much water as they can before starting out, then run toward the targeted animal, which of course flees. But the hunters persist, following the tracks as the animal tries to blend in with others or double back on itself. Ultimately, if the hunt is successful, the animal stops in exhaustion—it can’t run any longer—and the hunter slowly approaches for the kill.
The author witnessed altogether 10 persistence hunts, eight of which he measured with a vehicle. The hunts lasted from less than two to more than six hours, and they covered from 17.3 to 35 km (10.75 to 21.75 miles). They averaged about 6 km per hour, which may not seem too fast except that the hunters had to slow down repeatedly so they could pick out the tracks in difficult conditions. A strongly running animal is apparently harder to track than one that is starting to tire. Six of his observations were with one man, Karoha, in October 2001.
His informants told him that they concentrate on different species of antelopes depending on the time of year. The rainy season is good for hunting gemsbok, duiker, and steenbok because the wet conditions stiffen their joints and force open their hooves. Red hartebeest, eland, and kudu are better to run down during the dry season since they may become more tired in the sand. The hunters say that animals are more active at night if there is a full moon—they will be more tired the following day and easier to run down in the heat.
The hunters are also aware of seasonal variations. The kudu are bothered very much by insects which may make them sick and weakened during July and August. When the dry season is ending—October and November—the animals are less well nourished. In November and December, after the rains come, the kudu may get diarrhea from the leaves they eat. And after the rains have started, it is easier to track the animals in the wet sand. The hunters maintain that they can run down an animal anytime, though in the winter (June and July) the shorter days make it more difficult.
The author explains that physiological differences between the human hunters and the animals they are pursuing may give the men a significant advantage. The animals are less able than the men to cool themselves through panting while they are running, and the hair on their bodies may limit their ability to be cooled from perspiration.
The men cool down very effectively by both panting and by sweating all over the body surface. Human sweat glands are uniquely able to pour forth a great deal of moisture per unit of skin area. Furthermore, with their relatively hairless skin and upright posture, the running human is able to stay cooler much better than the animal. Also, upright posture reduces the amount of sunlight falling on the human, compared to the animal. Some scholars have argued that superior thermo regulation in humans and its importance for success in persistence hunting may have provided an adaptive evolutionary advantage for the development of bi-pedalism.
When it is chased, the animal runs swiftly, then tries to rest in the shade. The human keeps on running—not as fast but with more persistence. The animal adopts an intermittent running and resting pattern, which hinders its ability to keep going for a long period of time.
But the successful hunter still maintains his respect for his quarry. Karoha explained to the author, “when the kudu becomes tired you become strong. You take its energy. Your legs become free and you can run fast like yesterday; you feel just as strong at the end of the hunt as in the beginning.” When he approaches the animal, Karoha said, “what you will see is that you are now controlling its mind. You are getting its mind. The eyes are no longer wild. You have taken the kudu into your own mind (p.1024)”.
Liebenberg, Louis. 2006. “Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers.” Current Anthropology 47:1017-1026