The Origin of Tracking






Persistence hunting may well be one of the oldest forms of hunting, practiced long before humans invented bows and arrows. A simple form of tracking may have originated to find animals sleeping in burrows where it was easy for hunters to dig them out. In addition, endurance running may have evolved for more efficient scavenging. Perhaps as far back as two million years ago, endurance running and tracking made it possible to do persistence hunting in easy tracking conditons. Over time persistence hunting and the art of tracking evolved into the sophisticated levels practiced my modern hunter-gatherers.

Persistence hunting takes place during the hottest time of the day and involves chasing an animal until it overheats and eventually drops from hyperthermia. Perhaps the most critical factor in the success of persistence hunting is the fact that humans cool their bodies by sweating while running. If an antelope is forced to run in the midday heat on an extremely hot day it overheats and eventually drops or simply stops running from hyperthermia, allowing the hunter to kill it with a spear or other weapons.

Endurance running may be a derived capability of the genus Homo and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form. Evidence suggests that hominids were actively hunting, at least by the time that Homo erectus appears circa 1.9 million years ago. It is therefore possible that persistence hunting may have evolved with the evolution of Homo erectus as much as two million years ago.

A simple form of persistence hunting may have first developed in easy-tracking terrain, such as the arid, sparsely vegetated, sandy southern Kalahari. In these conditions, it may have been possible to run down animals with simple/systematic tracking. Simple tracking may be regarded as following footprints in ideal tracking conditions where the prints are clear and easy to follow. Systematic tracking is a more refined form of simple tracking, and it requires an ability to recognize signs in conditions where footprints are not obvious or easy to follow. The difference lies in the degree of skill. Systematic persistence hunting is therefore a more refined form of Simple persistence hunting.

When the ground is harder and the vegetation cover thicker, it may not be easy to see tracks, making speculative tracking essential. Speculative tracking involves the interpretation of signs, creating a hypothesis to explain what the animal was doing, and then using this hypothesis to predict where the animal is going. The sophisticated form of Speculative persistence hunting practiced by modern hunters in difficult-tracking terrain may have been a very recent development in human evolution.

Further Reading

Liebenberg, Louis. (2006) "Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers." Current Anthropology. Vol. 47. No. 6.

Liebenberg, Louis. (2008) "The Relevance of Persistence Hunting to Human Evolution." Journal of Human Evolution. Vol. 55, 1156-1159.

Video: Louis Liebenberg Talks at Barefoot Connections Conference (2012), Natural History Museum, London