Category Archive 'Pronghorn Antelope'

26 Apr 2011

Persistence Hunting Pronghorns

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When the modern urbanista hunts, he won’t necessarily carry a rifle or a bow, but he’ll certainly come equipped with a great big shiny theory.

Outside describes a (to my mind rather inconclusive) effort by three marathoners to run down Pronghorn Antelope to test the theory that prehistoric humans used to get their groceries by brute persistence.

Through the binoculars I see them: nine tiny men in bright jerseys running in formation across the vast short-grass prairie of eastern New Mexico. They’re chasing a tawny pronghorn antelope through the crackling stalks of late summer’s fading wild sunflowers. The buck weighs about 130 pounds, like the men racing after it, but that’s about the only thing they have in common.

The pronghorn is the second-fastest animal on earth, while the men are merely elite marathon runners who are trying to verify a theory about human evolution. Some scientists believe that our ancestors evolved into endurance athletes in order to hunt quad­rupeds by running them to exhaustion. If the theory holds up, the antelope I’m watching will eventually tire and the men will catch it. Then they’ll have to decide whether to kill it for food or let it go.

“I’ve harvested a ton of pronghorn,” bellows Peter Romero, a camo-clad, 260-pound New Mexican big-game guide who’s standing next to me, squinting into a spotting scope. “But never this way.” …

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 weapons. …

As ridiculous as this spectacle might appear, 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.

We can run all day, the theory goes, because there was once a caloric advantage to it. Our two human legs, packed as they are with long slow-twitch muscle fibers, make us better runners over long distances than most quad­rupeds. And our three million sweat glands give us the ability to cool our bodies with perspiration. An antelope, by contrast, sprints—for up to 15 minutes—while wearing a fur coat and relies on respiration (panting) to release the heat that builds up with exertion. Add to the mix our ability to organize and strategize and, well, you can see how persistence hunting might actually work.

Hat tip to Fred Lapides.


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