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In the wake of Dan Lieberman’s foray into the barefoot running debate, there’s an interesting counterpoint in the newest Journal of Experimental Biology from David Carrier of the University of Utah — the man who anticipated Lieberman’s 2004 “endurance running” evolutionary hypothesis by 20 years.
In a nutshell, Carrier’s paper points out that heel-striking — a.k.a. “the devil,” as far as Lieberman is concerned — actually has advantages in some contexts. As the Utah press release puts it:
Humans, other great apes and bears are among the few animals that step first on the heel when walking, and then roll onto the ball of the foot and toes. Now, a University of Utah study shows the advantage: Compared with heel-first walking, it takes 53 percent more energy to walk on the balls of your feet, and 83 percent more energy to walk on your toes. […]
Economical walking would have helped early human hunter-gatherers find food, he says. Yet, because other great apes also are heel-first walkers, it means the trait evolved before our common ancestors descended from the trees, [Carrier says].
The main point of the paper is that it’s curious that our foot anatomy is adapted to heel-strike while walking (i.e. we have a big, prominent heel), unlike most other mammals. But it’s a trait we share with all the other great apes, so it’s not something that was only created by the advent of thick-heeled modern shoes. As both Carrier and Lieberman have argued, many of our anatomical features seem to have evolved precisely to favour endurance running — but our heels, in contrast, seem better suited walking. This isn’t that surprising, the authors argue, given that both running and walking were likely essential to early hunter-gatherers.
Ultimately, none of this conflicts with the arguments put forth by Lieberman. Even if it’s natural to heel-strike while walking, the evidence suggests that early humans didn’t heel-strike while running. (Though the new study confirms earlier findings that there’s no difference in efficiency between heel-foot and fore-foot striking for running.) But as the barefoot running debate heats up, it’s interesting to note that heel striking has an evolutionary origin.