Persistence hunting (sometimes called endurance hunting) is a hunting technique in which hunters, who may be slower than their prey over short distances, use a combination of running, walking, and tracking to pursue prey until it is exhausted. A persistence hunter must be able to run a long distance over an extended period of time. The strategy is used by a variety of canids such as African wild dogs, and by human hunter-gatherers.
Humans are the only surviving primate species that practises persistence hunting. In addition to a capacity for endurance running, human hunters have comparatively little hair, which makes sweating an effective means of cooling the body. Meanwhile, ungulates and other mammals may need to pant to cool down enough, which also means that they must slow down if not remain still.
Persistence hunting is believed to have been one of the earliest hunting strategies used by humans. It is still used effectively by the San people in the Kalahari Desert, and by the Rarámuri people of Northwestern Mexico.
Persistence hunting is found in canids such as African wild dogs and domestic hounds. The African wild dog is an extreme persistence predator, tiring out individual prey by following them for many miles at relatively low speed, compared for example to the cheetah's brief high-speed pursuit.
As hominins adapted to bipedalism they would have lost some speed, becoming less able to catch prey with short, fast charges. They would, however, have gained endurance and become better adapted to persistence hunting. Although many mammals sweat, few have evolved to use sweating for effective thermoregulation, humans and horses being notable exceptions. This coupled with relative hairlessness would have given human hunters an additional advantage by keeping their bodies cool in the midday heat.
The persistence hunt is still practiced by hunter-gatherers in the central Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, and David Attenborough's documentary The Life of Mammals (program 10, "Food For Thought") showed a bushman hunting a kudu antelope until it collapsed. It is thought that the Tarahumara natives of northwestern Mexico in the Copper Canyon area may have also practiced persistence hunting. The procedure is not to spear the antelope, such as a kudu, from a distance, but to run it down in the midday heat, for about two to five hours over 25 to 35 km (16 to 22 mi) in temperatures of about 40 to 42 °C (104 to 108 °F). The hunter chases the kudu, which then runs away out of sight. By tracking it down at a fast running pace the hunter catches up with it before it has had enough time to rest in the shade. The animal is repeatedly chased and tracked down until it is too exhausted to continue running. The hunter then kills it at close range with a spear.
Persistence hunting has even been used against the fastest land animal, the cheetah. In November 2013, four Somali-Kenyan herdsmen from northeast Kenya successfully used persistence hunting in the heat of the day to capture cheetahs who had been killing their goats.
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Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion.
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- Attenborough, David (2002). "Program 10: Food For Thought" (pdf). Documentary The Life of Mammals. BBC. This documentary shows a bushman hunting a kudu antelope until it collapsed.
- "The Barefoot Professor". Nature Publishing Group. Daniel Lieberman talks about persistence hunting and barefoot running
- "Russian Family Cut Off for 40 Years from Human Contact". Smithsonian. Mentions that the family "lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion."