Running Deep

Speculations on the Evolution of Running and Spirituality in the Genus Homo


  • Robert R. Sands Air University
  • Linda R. Sands CH2M HILL



evolutionary biology, kiniseology, neurobiology, ethnography


Recently, there has been a plethora of work that has cast Homo, possibly Homo erectus as an established distance (endurance) runner (Carrier, 1984; Heinrich, 2001; Bramble and Lieberman 2004, Liebenberg 2006, Lieberman et al 2006, Lieberman and Bramble 2007, Lieberman et al., 2007). Speculations on selection for endurance running have focused on acquisition of animal protein, in the form of scavenging and hunting, specifically "persistence hunting"(Carrier, 1984; Heinrich,2001; Bramble and Lieberman 2004, Liebenberg 2006, Lieberman et al 2006, Lieberman and Bramble 2007, Lieberman et al., 2007). This paper offers an additional explanation for the selection of endurance running (perhaps already established as a critical behavior that filled several facets of Homo lifeways, to include subsistence). Running in Homo selected for a Paleolithic spirituality or "horizontal awareness" through a biologically-based, culturally reinforced biophilia that would have been enhanced through the existing neurobiological reward system. This awareness or Paleolithic high provided Homo with a means to reinforce the necessity of running for survival and situate them as part of a larger and dynamic environmental universe. This intimate environmental bond was facilitated and communicated through running. To borrow on a contemporary evolutionary psychology assessment, humans are wired, both in body and mind, to be runners, however, the ultra running movement today is only a pale reflection of what would have been an essential and reflective part of Homo lifeways.

Author Biographies

Robert R. Sands, Air University

Air Force Culture and Language Center Air University

Linda R. Sands, CH2M HILL

Project Scientist


Ackerman, D. 2000. Deep Play (New York: Vintage Press).

Aiello, L.C., and C. Key. 2002. ‘Energetic Consequences of Being a Homo erectus Female’, American Journal of Human Biology 14.5: 551-65. doi:10.1002/ajhb.10069.

Anton, S.C., W.R. Leonard, and M.L. Robertson. 2002. ‘An Ecomorphological Model of the Initial Hominid Dispersal from Africa’, Journal of Human Evolution 43.6: 773-85. doi:10.1006/jhev.2002.0602.

Atran, S. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Bale, J., and J. Sang. 1996. Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography and Global Change (London: Frank Cass & Co.).

Bateson, P. 2005. ‘The Role of Play in the Evolution of Great Apes and Humans’, in A.D. Pelligrini and P.K. Smith (eds.), The Nature of Play (New York: Guilford Press): 13-26.

Battista, G. 2004. The Runner’s High: Illumination and Ecstasy in Motion (Halcottsville, NY: Breakaway Books).

Bekoff, M., and J.A. Byers (eds.). 1998. Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Bement, M.K., and K.A. Sluka. 2005. ‘Low-intensity Exercise Reverses Chronic Muscle Pain in the Rat in a Naloxone-dependent Manner’, Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 86.9: 1736-40. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2005.03.029.

Bennet, W.C., and R.M. Zingg. 1935. The Tarahumara, an Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Bennett, Matthew R., et al. 2009. ‘Early Hominin Foot Morphology Based on 1.5- Million-Year-Old Footprints from Ileret, Kenya’, Science 323: 1197-201. doi:10.1126/science.1168132.

Berman, M. 2000. Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press).

Bobe, R., and A.K. Behrensmeyer. 2004. ‘The Expansion of Grassland Ecosystems in Africa in Relation to Mammalian Evolution and the Origin of the Genus Homo’, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 207.3: 399-420. doi:10.1016/S0031-0182(04)00049-5.

Boesch, C. 2003. ‘Complex Cooperation between Tai Chimpanzees’, in F.B. De Waal and P. Tyack (eds.), Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture and Individualized Societies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press): 93-110.

Boyer, P. 2002. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books).

Bramble, D.M., and D.E. Lieberman. 2004. ‘Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo’, Nature 432.7015: 345-52. doi:10.1038/nature03052.

Bunn, H.T. 2001. ‘Hunting, Power Scavenging and Butchering by Hadza Foragers and by Plio-Pleistocene Homo’, in C.B. Stanford and H.T. Bunn (eds.), Meat-Eating and Human Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 199-218.

———. 2006. ‘Meat Made Us Human’, in Ungar 2006: 191-211.

Burfoot, A. 1999. ‘African Speed, African Endurance’, in R.R. Sands (ed.), Anthropology, Sport, and Culture (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey): 53-63.

Burghardt, G. 1998. ‘The Evolutionary Origins of Play Revisited: Lessons from Turtles’, in Bekoff and Byers 1998: 1-26.

———. 2001. ‘Play: Attributes and Neural Substrates’, in E. Bass (ed.), Developmental Psychobiology. XIII. Handbook of Behavioral Neurobiology (New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press): 327-66.

———. 2005. The Genesis of Animal Play (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

Byers, J., and C. Walker. 1995. ‘Re_ning the Motor Training Hypothesis for the Evolution of Play’, American Nature 146.1: 25-40. doi:10.1086/285785.

Carrier, D.R. 1984. ‘The Energetic Paradox of Human Running and Hominid Evolution’, Current Anthropology 25.4: 483-95. doi:10.1086/203165.

Christenson, D.L. 2002. ‘From Tradition to the Olympics: Running Cultures in Mexico and Kenya’. Online: (accessed 20 December 2007).

Collinder, E., F. Nyberg, K. Sanderson-Nydahl, M. Gottlieb-Vedi, and A. Lindholm. 2005. ‘The Opioid Haemorphin-7 in Horses during Low-speed and High-speed Treadmill Exercise to Fatigue’, Journal of Veterinary Medicine: A Physiology, Pathology, Clinical Medicine 52.4: 162-65. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0442.2005.00712.x.

Colmant, S. 2005. ‘Interview with Arne Dietrich: Altered States of Consciousness, Creativity, and the Brain’. Online: (accessed 5 December 2009).

Cooper, A. 2004. Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports (Boston: Shambhala).

Cordain, L. 2006. ‘Implications of Plio-Pleistocene Hominin Diets for Modern Humans’, in Ungar 2006: 363-83.

d’Aquila, E., and A.B. Newberg. 1998. ‘The Neuropsychological Basis of Religion, or Why God Won’t Go Away’, Zygon 33.2: 187-201. doi:10.1111/0591-2385.00140.

———. 1999. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).

———. 2000. ‘The Neuropsychology of Aesthetic, Spiritual, and Mystical States’, Zygon 35.1: 39-51. doi:10.1111/0591-2385.00258.

Dawkins, R. 2006. The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mif_in).

Dickson, D.B. 1990. The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe (Tucson: University of Arizona Press).

Dietrich, A. 2003. ‘Functional Neuroanatomy of Altered States of Consciousness: The Transient Hypofrontality Hypothesis’, Consciousness and Cognition 12.2: 231-56. doi:10.1016/S1053-8100(02)00046-6.

Dietrich, A., and W.F. McDaniel. 2004. ‘Endocannabinoids and Exercise’, British Journal of Sports Medicine 38.5: 536-41. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2004.011718.

Draper, P. 1997. ‘Institutional, Evolutionary, and Demographic Contexts of Gender Roles: A Case Study of !Kung Bushman’, in Moreback, Galloway, and Zilman 1997: 220-32.

Eaton, S.B., S.B. Eaton III, and M.J. Konner. 1997. ‘Paleolithic Nutrition Revisited: A Twelve-Year Retrospective on its Nature and Implications’, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 51.4: 207-16. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1600389.

Eaton, S.B., M. Konner, and M. Shostak. 1988. ‘Stone Agers in the Fast Lane: Chronic Degenerative Diseases in Evolutionary Perspective’, American Journal of Medicine 84.4: 739-49. doi:10.1016/0002-9343(88)90113-1.

Entine, F. 2000. Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It (Jackson, TN: Public Affairs).

Gardner, E.L. 2005. ‘Endocannabinoid Signaling System and Brain Reward: Emphasis on Dopamine’, Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 81.2: 263-84. doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2005.01.032.

Goodall, J. 1971. In the Shadow of Man (Boston: Houghton Mif_in).

———. 1986. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Gruss, L.T., and D. Schmitt. 2004. ‘Bipedalism in Homo Ergaster: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Tibial Proportions and Locomotor Biomechanics’, in Meldrum, Hilton, and Hilton 2004: 117-34.

Hamer, D. 2004. The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired in our Genes (New York: Doubleday).

Heinrich, B. 2001. Why We Run: A Natural History (New York: Harper Collins Publishers).

Hilton, C.E., and R.D. Greaves. 2004. ‘Age, Sex and Resource Transport in Venezuelan Foragers’, in Meldrum, Hilton, and Hilton 2004: 163-83.

Huffman, M., and R. Wrangham. 1996. ‘Diversity of Medicinal Plant Use by Chimpanzees in the Wild’, in R. Wrangham, W.C. McGrew, F.B. De Waal, and P.G. Heltne (eds.), Chimpanzee Cultures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press): 129-48.

Jones, P. 2006. ‘Ultrarunners and Chance Encounters with “Absolute Unitary Being”’, Journal of Anthropology of Consciousness 15.2: 39-49. doi:10.1525/ac.2004.15.2.39.

Joseph, R. (ed.). 2003. Neurotheology: Brain, Science, Spirituality, Religious Experience (San Jose, CA: University Press, 2nd edn).

Joyce, C. 2009. ‘Earliest Humanlike Footprints found in Kenya’, NPR (3 March 2009). Online: (accessed 3 March 2009).

Kanarek, R.B., A.V. Gerstein, R.P. Wildman, W. Foulds Mathes, and K.E. D’Anci. 1998. ‘Chronic Running-wheel Activity Decreases Sensitivity to Morphineinduced Analgesia in Male and Female Rats’, Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior 61.1: 19-27. doi:10.1016/S0091-3057(98)00059-8.

Kellert, S.R. 1993. ‘The Biological Basis for Human Values of Nature’, in Kellert and Wilson 1993: 42-69.

———. 1997. Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development (Washington, DC: Island Press).

———. 2005. Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human–Nature Connection (Washington, DC: Island Press).

———. 2007. ‘Connecting with Creation: The Convergence of Nature, Religion, Science and Culture’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 1.1: 25-37.

Kellert, S.R., and E.O. Wilson (eds.). 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington, DC: Island Press).

Kelly, A.E., and K.C. Berridge. 2002. ‘The Neuroscience of Natural Rewards: Relevance to Addictive Drugs’, Journal of Neuroscience 22.9: 3306-11.

Kennedy, J.G. 1978. Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Beer, Ecology, and Social Organization (Arlington Heights: AHM Publishing).

King, B. 2007. Evolving God: A Provocative View on the Origins of Religion (New York: Doubleday).

Koltyn, K.F., and M. Umeda. 2006. ‘Exercise, Hypoalgesia and Blood Pressure’, Sports Medicine 36.3: 207-14. doi:10.2165/00007256-200636030-00003.

Kotler, S. 2006. West of Jesus: Sur_ng, Science and the Origins of Belief (New York: Bloomsbury).

Kramer, P.A. 2004. ‘The Behavioral Ecology of Locomotion’, in Meldrum, Hilton, and Hilton 2004: 101-16.

Lewis, K.P. 2000. ‘A Comparative Study of Primate Play Behavior: Implications for the Study of Cognition’, Folia Primatologica 71: 417-21. doi:10.1159/000052740.

Lewis, K.P., and R.A. Barton. 2004. ‘Playing for Keeps: Evolutionary Relationship between Social Play and the Cerebellum in Nonhuman Primates’, Human Nature 15.1: 5-21. doi:10.1007/s12110-004-1001-0.

Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London and New York: Thames & Hudson).

Li, G., J.S. Rhodes, I. Girard, S.C. Gammie, and T. Garland, Jr. 2004. ‘Opioid-mediated Pain Sensitivity in Mice Bred for High Voluntary Wheel Running’, Physiology and Behavior 83.3: 515-24. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.09.003.

Liebenberg, L. 2006. ‘Persistence Hunting by Modern Hunter-Gatherers’, Current Anthropology 47.5: 1017-26. doi:10.1086/508695.

Lieberman, D.E., and D.M. Bramble. 2007. ‘The Evolution of Marathon Running Capabilities in Humans’, Sports Medicine 37.4: 288-90. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737040-00004.

Lieberman, D.E., D.M. Bramble, D.A. Raichlen, and J.J. Shea. 2007. ‘The Evolution of Endurance Running and the Tyranny of Ethnography: A Reply to Pickering and Bunn’, Journal of Human Evolution 53.4: 434-37. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.07.002.

Lieberman. D.E., D.A. Raichlen, H. Pontzer, D.M. Bramble, and E. Cutright-Smith. 2006. ‘The Human Gluteus Maximus and its Role in Running’, The Journal of Experimental Biology 209.11: 2143-55. doi:10.1242/jeb.02255.

Manners, J. 1997. ‘Kenya’s Running Tribe’, The Sports Historian 17.2: 14-27. doi:10.1080/17460269709445785.

Marshall, L. 1976. The !Kung of Nyae Nyae (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Mathes, W.F., and R.B. Kanarek. 2006. ‘Chronic Running Wheel Activity Attenuates the Antinocicpetive Sctions of Morphine and Morphine-6-glucouronide Administration into the Periaqueductal Gray in Rats’, Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 83.4: 578-84. doi:10.1016/j.pbb.2006.03.020.

Mayes, R.E. 2005. The Cybernetics of Kenyan Running: Hurry, Hurry has no Blessing (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press).

McDougall, C., and B. McClintock. 2006. ‘The Men Who Live Forever’, Men’s Health 21.6: 180-91.

Meldrum, D., J. Hilton, and C.E. Hilton (eds.). 2004. From Biped to Strider: The Emergence of Modern Human Walking, Running and Resource Transport (New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenium Publishers).

Merrill, W.L. 1988. Raramuri Souls: Knowledge and Social Process in Northern Mexico (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press).

Milton, K. 1999. ‘A Hypothesis to Explain the Role of Meat-eating in Human Evolution’, Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News and Reviews 8.1: 11-21.

Mithen, S. 1996. The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science (New York: Thames & Hudson).

Moreback, M.E., A. Galloway, and A. Zilman (eds.). 1997. The Evolving Female: A Life History Perspective (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Nabakov, P. 1981. Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition (Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press).

Nickels, M.K. 2006. ‘New Taxonomy for Humans and Apes’, Evolution and the Nature of Sciences Institutes. Online: (accessed 19 September 2009).

O’Connell, J.F., K. Hawkes, and H.G. Blurton Jones. 1999. ‘Grandmothering and the Evolution of Homo Erectus’, Journal of Human Evolution 36.5: 461-85. doi:10.1006/jhev.1998.0285.

Panksepp, J. 1986. ‘The Psychobiology of Prosocial Behaviors: Separation Distress, Play, and Altruism’, in C. Zahn-Waxler, E.M. Cummings and R. Iannotti (eds.), Altruism and Aggression, Biological and Social Origins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press): 19-57.

———. 1993. ‘Rough and Tumble Play: A Fundamental Brain Process’, in K. MacDonald (ed.), Parent–Child Play (Albany, NY: SUNY Press): 147-84.

Panksepp, J., L. Normansell, J. Cox, L. Crepeau, and D.S. Sacks. 1987. ‘Psychoparmacology of Social Play’, in J. Mos (ed.), Ethnopharmacology of Social Behavior (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff): 132-44.

Panksepp, J., S. Siviy, and L. Normansell. 1984. ‘The Psychobiology of Play: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives’, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 8.4: 465-92. doi:10.1016/0149-7634(84)90005-8.

Pelligrini, A.D., and P.K. Smith. 1998. ‘Physical Activity Play: Consensus and Debate’, Child Development 69.3: 609-10.

Pennington, C.W. 1963. Tarahumara of Mexico: Their Environment and Material Culture (Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press).

Pickering, T.R., and H.T. Bunn. 2007. ‘The Endurance Running Hypothesis and Hunting and Scavenging in Savanna-woodlands’, Journal of Human Evolution 53.4: 438-42. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.01.012.

Plummer, T. 2004. ‘Flaked Stones and Old Bones: Biological and Cultural Evolution at the Dawn of Technology’, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 47: 118-64. doi:10.1002/ajpa.20157.

Raichlen, D.A., B.K. Keeney, G. Gerdeman, T.H. Meek, R.S. Wijeratne, and T. Garland. 2008. ‘Wired to Run? The Evolution of Novel Locomotor Behaviors in Hominins’ (paper presented at Seventy-Seventh Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Columbus, OH, April 2008).

Rhodes, J.S., S.C. Gammie, and T. Garland. 2005. ‘Neurobiology of Mice Selected for High Voluntary Wheel-running Activity’, Integrative & Comparative Biology 45.3: 438-55. doi:10.1093/icb/45.3.438.

Richerson, P.J., and R. Boyd. 2000. ‘The Pleistocene and the Origins of Human Culture: Built for Speed’, Perspectives in Ethology 13: 1-45.

Robson, A.J., and H.S. Kaplan. 2003. ‘The Evolution of Human Life Expectancy and Intelligence in Hunter-Gatherer Economies’, The American Economic Review 93.1: 150-69. doi:10.1257/000282803321455205.

Sands, R.R. (in press). ‘Homo cursor: Running into the Pleistocene’, in R.R. Sands and L.R. Sands (eds.), Anthropology of Sport and Human Movement (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books).

Shipman, P., and A. Walker. 1989. ‘The Cost of Becoming a Predator’, Journal of Human Evolution 18: 373-92. doi:10.1016/0047-2484(89)90037-7.

Shostak, M. 1976. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Siviy, S.M. 1998. ‘Neurobiological Substrates of Play Behavior: Glimpses into the Structure and Function of Mammalian Playfulness’, in Bekoff and Byers 1998: 221-42.

Smith, M.A., and D.L. Yancey. 2003. ‘Sensitivity to the Effects of Opioids in Rats with Free Access to Exercise Wheels: Mu-opioid Tolerance and Physical Dependence’, Psychopharmacology 168.4: 426-34. doi:10.1007/s00213-003-1471-5.

Spinka, M., R. Newberry, and M. Bekoff. 2001. ‘Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected’, The Quarterly Review of Biology 76.2: 141-67. doi:10.1086/393866.

Stanford, C.B. 1999. The Hunting Apes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

———. 2006. ‘The Behavioral Ecology of Sympatric African Apes: Implications for Understanding Fossil Hominoid Ecology’, Primates 47: 91-101. doi:10.1007/s10329-005-0148-6.

Steudel-Numbers, K.L., T.D. Weaver, and C.M. Wall-Schef_er. 2007. ‘The Evolution of Human Running: Effects of Changes in Lower-limb Length on Locomotor Economy’, Journal of Human Evolution 53.2: 191-96. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.04.001.

Tanser, T. 1997. Train Hard, Win Easy: The Kenyan Way (Mountain View, CA: Tafnews Press).

Ungar, P.S., F.E. Grine, M.F. Teaford, and S. El Zaatari. 2006. ‘Dental Microwear and Diets of African Early Homo’, Journal of Human Evolution 50.1: 78-95. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2005.08.007.

Ungar, P.S. (ed.). 2006. Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown and the Unknowable (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Vitzhum, V.J. 1997. ‘Flexibility and Paradox: The Nature of Adaptation in Human Reproduction’, in Moreback, Galloway, and Zilman 1997: 242-58.

Werme, M., P. Thoren, L. Olson, and S. Brene. 1999. ‘Addiction-Prone Lewis but not Fischer Rats Develop Compulsive Running that Coincides with Downregulation of Nerve Growth Factor Inducible-B and Neuron-Derived Orphan Receptor 1’, The Journal of Neuroscience 19.14: 6169-74.

Wilson. E.O. 1984. Biophilia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

———. 1993. ‘Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic’, in Kellert and Wilson 1993: 31-41.

Winkelman, M. 2000. The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing (Greenwich, CT: Greenwood Press).

Winkelman, M., and J. Baker. 2008. Supernatural as Natural: A Biocultural Approach to Religion (New Jersey: Prentice Hall).

Wise, R.A. 2002. ‘Brain Reward Circuitry: Insights from Unsensed Incentives’, Neuron 36.2: 229-40. doi:10.1016/S0896-6273(02)00965-0.

Wynn, T. 1992. ‘Two Developments in the Mind of Early Homo’, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 12.3: 299-22. doi:10.1006/jaar.1993.1009.



How to Cite

Sands, R. R., & Sands, L. R. (2010). Running Deep: Speculations on the Evolution of Running and Spirituality in the Genus Homo. Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 3(4), 552–577.