Humans have been hunters and gatherers for millions of years and only farmers for a mere 10,000 of those years. Basically this tells us that we have been running in some form or another for literally millions of years. It’s just juvenile to think that running is something new or that we have to learn how to run; it is innate and our lives certainly depended on it.

Two million years ago the human brain exploded in size. We have all kinds of anthropologic evidence to support this. Before that, Australopithecus had a tiny little brain; these are an extinct genus of hominis. Australopithecus species played a significant part in human evolution, the genus Homo being derived from Australopithecus at some time after three million years ago. In a 1979, a preliminary micro wear study of Australopithecus fossil teeth, anthropologist Alan Walker theorized that robust australopiths mainly ate fruit, vegetables, small lizards, and tubers.

Then suddenly humans show up — Homo erectus – big head, big brain. To have a brain of that size, you need to have a source of condensed caloric energy. Early humans were eating dead animals to gain a high caloric intake, this is fact. The only problem is that anthropologists discovered that the first edged weapons only appeared about 200,000 years ago. This means that for nearly two million years, we were hunting animals without any weapons.

Think about this for a minute. Early humans were not very big creatures, nor the strongest. We did not have a secret venom or some other way to outright hunt an animal. We were not using our strength, because we did not have them. Every other animal in the jungle is stronger than we are; they have speed, agility, strong mouths, fangs, claws, and better night vision. If you think that a sprinter like Usain Bolt is fast, his speed is nothing compared to that of a cheetah, or even a squirrel. Humans are simply not fast animals. So humans had no weapons, no speed, no strength, no fangs, no claws; how were we hunting these animals?

First let’s move a bit forward in and take a look at a well-known people in Mexico called the Tarahumara Indians. They can be found down in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, a reclusive tribe, called the Tarahumara Indians. Chris McDougall wrote about them in his book called “Born to Run.” The Tarahumara are remarkable for many things. They have been living essentially unchanged for the past 400 years. In the 1600’s, when the conquistadors arrived in Mexico, the Mayans and Aztecs engaged in war, which is why there are very few Mayans and Aztecs. The Tarahumara Indians ran and hid in the Copper Canyons – a labyrinthine maze of canyons.  There they remained since the 1600s — essentially the same way they’ve always been. The Tarahumara men still run, deep into old age — 70 to 80 years old. These guys aren’t running marathons; they’re running mega-marathons. They’re running 100 miles at a time, and apparently without injury or problems. Tarahumara running is based on endurance not speed. This fact is exemplified by their hunting practices. In order to catch such wild animals such as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion. Just as we have been doing for millions of years.

Next, take the fact that as the distance and endurance increases, women become faster as the distance increases. When men or women run 50, 100 miles and beyond, suddenly it’s anybody’s game. There are countless examples of women finishing in the top ten in ultra-endurance races.   Researchers at the University of Utah found that if you start running the marathon at an early age (20 years), you will get progressively faster, and peak at age 27. After this age you become slower and eventually go back to your running pace at an early age. But then you pretty much stay at the same pace into your 60’s and maybe even beyond.

Maybe we evolved as a hunting pack animal. The one thing that we innately do well is to run long distances. No other animal can outlast us. We can do this as humans because we sweat. We actually have skin bacteria that optimize our efficiency of sweating called Nitrosamonas Eutropa. Take a horse on a hot day, the horse will stop after 10 kilometers. So a likely natural advantage that we had as early humans is that we functioned well together in a pack.

So if we assume that we were pack hunters, which history suggests, the keys to being part of a hunting pack is staying together as a unit. One person is not going to kill a buffalo 20 miles out and bring it back. It takes a pack to kill and bring the animal back to the village or group. And logically there has to be humans of all levels, such as skilled trackers, fast sprinters, and strong men, all who can perform each duty integral to pack hunting. The women and children can be far, because in order to reproduce, the women need to eat to keep up their reproductive capabilities and the children are growing faster than anyone.

Another thing that has to be true about a pack is that there can be no egos. No one can be mad at each other and trust must be strong. The pack has got to be able to swallow its ego, be cooperative and pull together. What you end up with, is a culture remarkably similar to the Tarahumara — a tribe that has remained unchanged since the Stone Age. In a way, it also has components of the people of Roseto: sticking together, no egos, low stress, helping each other, etc. At one time, the people of Roseto had the lowest rate of heart disease known in America. No one could figure it out. They ate traditional Italian, drank, smoked, etc. Its a fascinating read.

It’s a really compelling argument that maybe the Tarahumara and others are doing exactly what all of us had done for millions of years. And certainly they have done it without shoes! Curious thing about running and running injuries is that the running injury is new to our time. If you read folklore and mythology, running is always associated with freedom and vitality and youthfulness and eternal vigor. It’s only in our lifetime that running has become associated with fear and pain.

It is an alien concept nowadays to not wear shoes. People look at running as a feat only obtainable by the elite of the world. The truth is that we were made to run, together, and barefoot.

So how do we get back to that again?

Well, I would submit to you the first thing to do is to decide to simplify your life and perhaps move closer to family or at least very good friends. Imagine a world where everybody could just go out and engage in the kind of exercise / social activity that’s going to make them more relaxed, more serene, healthier, less stress — where you don’t come back into your office a raging maniac anymore, where you don’t go back home with a lot of stress on top of you again. Maybe there’s something between what we are today and what the Tarahumara have always been. Definitely not saying give it all up and start running barefoot today. You’ll likely be visiting the orthopedic doctor with foot fractures!

Stop focusing on urban marathons and get back to that sense of playfulness and joyfulness and, I would say, nakedness, that has made the Tarahumara one of the healthiest and serene cultures in our time. Maybe there’s somewhere in between. And if we find that thing, maybe there is a big fat Nobel Prize out there. Because if somebody could find a way to restore that natural ability that we all enjoyed for most of our existence, up until the 1970s or so, the benefits, social and physical and political and mental, could be astounding.


Adapted from Chris McDougals TED talk and other sources.