Few modern people have ever experienced what it is like to “run with the hunt”. One notable exception is Dr. Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State, who has spent 30 years living with and studying the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay and the Hiwi foragers of Southwestern Venezuela. His description below represents a rare glimpse into the activity that would have been required of us all, were it not for the Agricultural Revolution.
“The Ache hunted every day of the year if it didn’t rain…GPS data I collected … suggests that about 10 km per day is probably closer to their average distance covered during search. They might cover another 1-2 km per day in very rapid pursuit. Sometimes pursuits can be extremely strenuous and last more than an hour. Ache hunters often take an easy day after any particularly difficult day, and rainfall forces them to take a day or two a week with only an hour or two of exercise. Basically they do moderate days most of the time, and sometimes really hard days usually followed by a very easy day. The difficulty of the terrain is really what killed me (ducking under low branches and vines about once every 20 seconds all day long, and climbing over fallen trees, moving through tangled thorns etc.) I was often drenched in sweat within an hour of leaving camp, and usually didn’t return for 7-9 hours with not more than 30 minutes rest during the day.”
“The Hiwi on the other hand only hunted about 2-3 days a week and often told me they wouldn’t go out on a particular day because they were ‘tired’. They would stay home and work on tools, etc. Their travel was not as strenuous as among the Ache (they often canoed to the hunt site), and their pursuits were usually shorter. But the Hiwi sometimes did amazing long distance walks that would have really hurt the Ache. They would walk to visit another village maybe 80-100 km away and then stay for only an hour or two before returning. This often included walking all night long as well as during the day. When I hunted with Machiguenga, Yora, Yanomamo Indians in the 1980s, my focal man days were much, much easier than with the Ache. And virtually all these groups take an easy day after a particularly difficult one.”
“While hunter gatherers are generally in good physical condition if they haven’t yet been exposed to modern diseases and diets that come soon after permanent outside contact, I would not want to exaggerate their abilities. They are what you would expect if you took a genetic cross section of humans and put them in lifetime physical training at moderate to hard levels. Most hunting is search time not pursuit, thus a good deal of aerobic long distance travel is often involved (over rough terrain and carrying loads if the hunt is successful). I used to train for marathons as a grad student and could run at a 6:00 per mile pace for 10 miles, but the Ache would run me into the ground following peccary tracks through dense bush for a couple of hours. I did the 100 yd in 10.2 in high school (I was a fast pass catcher on my football team), and some Ache men can sprint as fast as me.”
“But hunter-gatherers do not generally compare to world class athletes, who are probably genetically very gifted and then undergo even more rigorous and specialized training than any forager. So the bottom lines is foragers are often in good shape and they look it. They sprint, jog, climb, carry, jump, etc all day long but are not specialists and do not compare to Olympic athletes in modern societies.”
Dr. Hill tells us part of the story, but not everything. Today, women are just as likely as men to be found at the gym lifting weights, or running or riding their bikes. In stark contrast, hunter-gatherer women almost never participated in hunting large animals. Does this mean that women did no hard aerobic work? Absolutely not! Women routinely gathered food every two or three days. The fruits of their labors just didn’t include plant foods, but also small animals such as tortoises, small reptiles, shellfish, insects, bird eggs and small mammals. They spent many hours walking to sources of food, water and wood. Sometimes they would help carrying butchered game back to camp. Their foraging often involved strenuous digging, climbing, and then hauling heavy loads back to camp while carrying infants and young children. Other common activities, some physically taxing, included tool making, shelter construction, childcare, butchering, food preparation, and visiting. Dances were a major recreation for hunter-gatherers, and could take place several nights a week and often last for hours. So, the overall activity of women, like men, was cyclic with days of intense physical exertion (both aerobic and resistive) alternated with days of rest and light activity.