Why Do Humans Have Less Hair Than Other Mammals? – The Art of Persistence Hunting

Pretend that you a hominoid which lived millions of years ago on the African Savanna. You have just spotted an Antelope in the distance. The only tool you have available to you is a sharpened rock. You have no spears to throw or arrows to fire. Considering the Antelope is quicker and more agile than you are, how could you ever hope to catch it?

You attempt to sneak up on the Antelope but your presence does not go unnoticed. It springs to action and takes off. You run after the antelope. Though it leaves your field of vision, you are able to track the prints it leaves in the barren dust. Forty five minutes later you find it panting furiously in the shade. It notices you and takes off once again. You continue to jog after it, continuously finding it and forcing it to keep moving. Five hours later you find it again, except this time, it doesn’t take off. The Antelope is suffering from heat exhaustion, it doesn’t have the strength to stand. All it can do is look at you as your sharpened stoned crashes into its skull.

This hunting technique is called persistence hunting, and it provides insight into a key trait that separates humans from apes and other mammals. Antelopes cool themselves by panting, even though they sweat, they can’t use sweat as a form of thermoregulation. As a result, when the Antelope is fleeing, it has no way to cool itself. But what about a human being? Human beings don’t cool themselves by panting, we use sweat for thermoregulation. This allows us to cool ourselves the entire time we hunt the Antelope. This grants us superior endurance in the African Savanna’s overwhelming heat. Early humans weren’t the strongest, fastest, or most agile creatures, but their endurance triumphed over all others. Scientists believe that this hunting strategy is directly responsible for loss of hair on much of the human body. Less hair made thermoregulation by sweat much more effective.

Believe it or not, this hunting strategy is not extinct. Hunters of the central Kalahari still engage in persistence hunting. They will chase an Antelope in temperatures over 100 oF. Even though their prey escapes their sight, they are able to track it. By running at a fast pace, they keep the Antelope from cooling down for long periods. Eventually, the Antelope cannot continue, and the hunter finishes it off with the throw of a spear, merely a symbolic gesture. It takes these hunters anywhere from two to five hours to defeat their prey in this battle of endurance. One hunter’s chase was documented in “The Life of Mammals”, narrated by David Attenborough.

The next time you drive to the grocery store or stop by McDonalds for a quick meal, think about the exhausting chase your ancestors endured for meat. The following article provides more information on the subject: Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.

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