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Can a Human Outrun a Cheetah?

Posted on November 17 2013

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If you ask the average person which animal is the best runner on the planet, the most common answer would likely be the cheetah. Few would likely say humans. Cheetahs are blazing fast, no doubt, and in a sprint a cheetah would blow a human away. But what would happen in a long distance race?

Much has been made of human distance running prowess in recent years. Scientists like Daniel Lieberman at Harvard have put forth the hypothesis that humans evolved to be exceptional endurance runners as a means to hunt prey prior to the advent of projectile weapons. The idea is that early humans used a technique called persistence hunting to kill animals and obtain meat for the tribe.

Persistence hunting is a method by which the hunter chases a prey animal until it succumbs to heat-exhaustion and can be killed at close range with little risk to the hunter. The hunting method is often employed during the hottest part of the day, and the target animal is often large and potentially dangerous if approached at close range under normal conditions. Here’s an example from the BBC’s Life of Mammals showing the technique in action:

Persistence hunting is not commonly employed among modern humans, but stories about the practice do pop up from time to time. A reader (thanks Jens!) just sent me a link to an article on the BBC website telling the story of a Kenyan goat herder whose flock was being repeatedly attacked by cheetahs. Rather than kill the animals by shooting them, which seems like it would be the likely way to handle the situation, the herder took a radically different approach: he ran them down on foot and captured them alive:

“The owner of the goats told the BBC that the cheetahs had been picking off his animals one by one, day by day.

The men waited until the hottest part of the day before launching the chase over a distance of four miles (6.4km).

The cheetahs got so tired they could not run any more. The villagers captured them alive and handed them over to the Kenya Wildlife Service.”

As anyone who routinely runs with a dog has probably realized, sometimes humans have the upper hand over animals we think of as great runners when the environmental conditions are right. Cheetahs may be fast, and I’d never want to be chased at a sprint by a hungry one, but over a few miles in the heat of day, many of us would have a chance at winning a race.

It may be unfair to compare cheetahs and humans when it comes to running ability, kind of like asking if Usain Bolt or marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang is the better runner. However, it does make one think about whether the answer to the question of which animal is the best runner should be based solely on speed. Rather, the best response to the question might be “over what distance, and at what time of day?” If at high-noon and over several miles, the best runner might just be you.

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