Human evolution and barefoot running

Jim Haber writes:

Our speaker [in the Joint Biology/Neuroscience Colloquium at 4 pm  in Gerstenzang 121] on Nov 14 is Prof. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard.  He is the second of our Distinguished Biology Lecturers.  Dan is one of the world’s experts on human evolution and running (how our necks balance our stride, among other things) .  His interests have also made him a major advocate for barefoot running.


Here’s a summary:

Ever since the human lineage diverged from the African apes, hominins have been bipeds of some sort.  Comparative and fossil evidence suggest that the earliest hominins were capable, habitual bipedal walkers but were also adept at climbing trees.  At some point, however, hominins lost the ability to climb trees very well, and became superlative long distance runners.  Comparisons of human endurance running performance with other mammals show that we excel at speed, distance, and running in the heat. Further, human distance running capabilities far exceed those of any other primate, and they match or even surpass the best mammalian runners in hot conditions over very long distances.  The human body is thus replete with many adaptations that improve endurance running performance, and many of these adaptations first appear about two million years ago in the fossil record of the genus Homo.

The evolution of human running is also relevant from the perspective of evolutionary medicine.  Perhaps the most important legacy is that humans evolved to be physical active endurance athletes compared to other apes, which helps explain why an absence of physical activity is not only abnormal but also pathological.  Another interesting legacy of our evolution history is that since humans ran barefoot for most of the last two million years, the study of barefoot running provides an opportunity to study how natural selection adapted the human body to run, potentially offering insights on preventing injury.

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