Study: Humans Could Outrun Neanderthals

By Andrew Moseman | February 4, 2011 2:59 pm

Neanderthals: They weren’t really into distance running. According to research by David Raichlen in the Journal of Human Evolution, they were more the power walking type: The shape of a Homo sapiens heel compared to that of a Neanderthal would have allowed our ancestors to be much more efficient runners over long distances.

Raichlen stated with living humans, studying them as they ran on treadmills.

By looking at MRI scans of their ankles, he found that the distance between a point on the heel bone just below the ankle bone, and the back of the heel bone where the Achilles tendon attaches, was proportional to the runner’s efficiency. The shorter this distance, the greater is the force applied to stretch the tendon – and the more energy is stored in it. This means that people with shorter distances are more efficient runners, using less energy to run for longer. [New Scientist]

With this knowledge, Raichlen and colleagues looked at the remains of Neanderthals as well as humans of the same era. The difference, he says, was distinct.

In ancient Homo sapiens, as in people today, a short lower heel stretched the Achilles tendon taut, Raichlen’s team concludes. That arrangement increased the tendon’s spring-like action during running and reduced energy consumption, enabling extended excursions. [Science News]

Neanderthal remains revealed that the hominids had longer heel bones, giving them less of a springy step and making them ill-suited to running. But the taller bones may have provided more stability when walking, the researchers suggest.

Why did Neanderthals become brawny and Homo sapiens fleet of foot? Based on what anthropologists know about where and how they lived, it makes some sense. On the balmy savannas of Africa, one of early humans’ hunting strategies could have been to chase animal prey on marathon runs until the creature got heat exhaustion and gave out. Neanderthals, however, are known to have lived further north in cooler climates, where such a strategy wouldn’t pay off.

Since there is an inherent trade-off between speed and strength in species throughout the animal kingdom, it is likely that Neanderthals were built more for brawn, with humans evolving lighter, more aerodynamic bodies for running. (This doesn’t take into account food consumption and other behavioral factors that can add heft.) [Discovery News]

But don’t get too smug about your marathon prowess, humans. The true distance runners in the animals kingdom are ostriches, who scoot along with twice the efficiency compared to us.

Related Content:
80beats: Short-Lived? Hardly—Neanderthals Matched Early Humans’ Lifespan
80beats: Omnivorous Neanderthals: Study Says Their Teeth Show Evidence of Eating Plants
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete
80beats: No Shoes, No Problem? Barefoot Runners Put Far Less Stress on Their Feet
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: Are a Sprinter’s Prostethic Legs an Unfair Advantage?
DISCOVER: Born to Run

Image: D. Raichlen

  • bigjohn756

    Duh! Of course humans could outrun Neanderthals, humans had Nikes.

  • Mike O.

    Great article, interesting research!

    As for running and shoes, I recommend anybody to watch Christopher McDougall’s TED talk here:

  • Jim Johnson

    I haven’t seen this specific research before, but I’ve seen shows on TV for several years asserting that modern humans could outrun Neanderthals. So while the story may be new, the headline isn’t.

  • Charles

    The example of the ostrich should put an end to human assumptions of sole superiority. Plus the ostriches have left impressive architectural and sculptural ruins in Central America, and of course there is their epic poem cycle, “The Saga of Flightless Frederick.”

  • Scott T

    It’s no wonder that we see Africans doing well in sports involving running and jumping. Scientists are now saying that Neanderthals only interbred with non-Africans.

  • JMW

    It would be interesting if some of these paleontologists would speculate about the running stride of early Homo sapiens: did the heel strike the ground first, or the ball of the foot?

  • Shawn

    Just finished re-watching Nova’s Becoming Human, I was searching on Nova’s Evolution site for humans interbreeding with Neanderthals. I was a little disappointed and surprised to find none. But here was one of the search results. Scott T’s comment above brought a laugh. I did find it hard to believe Becoming Human’s claim there was no interbreeding. We all know too well that humans breed whenever and where ever possible, especially when humans had the upper hand, obviously.


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