Reexamining the Mythology of the Tarahumara Runners

You remember the Tarahumara, right? They are, as Christopher McDougall memorably described them in Born to Run back in 2009, the “near-mythical tribe of Stone Age superathletes” who live in the canyons of northwestern Mexico and run astounding distances over vertiginous terrain without even breaking a sweat.

Born to Run also introduced the wider world to a Harvard anthropologist and evolutionary biologist named Daniel Lieberman, whose research on the evolutionary origins of running led him to hypothesize that even modern humans would be better off running either barefoot or with minimally supportive shoes. Colorful tales of the Tarahumara mixed with Lieberman’s scientific cred made for a potent combination, and interest in barefoot and minimalist running exploded after the publication of McDougall’s book.

In the years since, there have been critical reappraisals of the case for minimalist running. Now, in an article in the journal Current Anthropology titled “Running in Tarahumara (Rarámuri) Culture: Persistence Hunting, Footracing, Dancing, Work, and the Fallacy of the Athletic Savage,” a team of anthropologists take aim at the myths and misunderstandings that have arisen over Tarahumara running culture. The lead author? None other than Daniel Lieberman.

In scientific circles, Lieberman is probably most famous for a paper he published in 2004 with Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah, arguing that humans evolved to run long distances. (The tag on the cover of that issue of Nature: “Born to Run.”) In this telling, our ability to run large animals to exhaustion over many hours or even days drove—and was enabled by—a series of crucial adaptations ranging from shorter toes to a profusion of sweat glands. It was this interest in persistence hunting that initially sent Lieberman and his colleagues to the Copper Canyon in Mexico, where stories of Tarahumara chasing down deer have captivated visiting adventurers and scientists since the 1800s.

Lieberman recruited an interesting team to work with him. In addition to two of his former postdoctoral researchers, Nicholas Holowka and Ian Wallace, the authors include Mickey Mahaffey, an American who has lived among the Tarahumara for more than two decades and speaks Rarámuri, the Tarahumara language; Silvino Cubesare Quimare, a Tarahumara farmer and runner; and Aaron Baggish, a Harvard cardiologist who is among the world’s leading experts on exercise and heart health. The research team interviewed ten Tarahumara runners between the ages of 50 and 90, all of whom participated in persistence hunts when they were younger.

The entire paper, along with a series of responses from other scholars and experts in the field, is freely available online. It’s fascinating and worth reading in its entirety, but I’ll highlight a few notable points here.

For starters, here’s the central theme of the paper in the team’s own words: 

Tarahumara (Rarámuri) running, like many other aspects of Tarahumara culture and biology, has too often been mischaracterized by what we label the “fallacy of the athletic savage.” Let’s banish this false and dehumanizing notion. Running is important in Tarahumara culture, and some Tarahumara individuals are among the world’s best long-distance runners, but it is incorrect to stereotype and commodify the Tarahumara as a “hidden tribe” of “superathletes” who naturally run long distances because they are uncontaminated by Western civilization. Tarahumara running—like everything else about the Tarahumara—needs to be understood in its larger social, economic, spiritual, and ecological contexts.

Racing as Simulated Hunting

In contrast to typical ultramarathons, Tarahumara footraces are team events that pit pueblos against each other and generally involve collectively kicking or hitting a wooden ball or propelling a hoop around a course with laps of about 5K. Only a core group of runners completes the whole race, which might last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but the rest of the community joins in to support the participants, occasionally hopping in for a few laps to keep them company.

Being a good runner grants you some social status, but that’s not really what it’s about. In the new study, Lieberman and his colleagues argue that the deeper significance of Tarahumara footraces is that they were probably a good way to keep fit for persistence hunts and to figure out who should go on the next hunting trip. Interestingly, according to their interviews with Tarahumara elders, when someone organized a big running event, the runners themselves often didn’t find out until the night before whether they would be racing or hunting—the two were inextricably linked.

The Tarahumara Secret

There is, of course, no secret. In fact, the authors point out that similar traditions have existed across the Americas and perhaps around the world. For example, the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, described the running feats of the Narragansett in 1643: “I have knowne many of them run betweene foure scoure or an hundred miles in a Summers day.” The Copper Canyon is so hard to reach that it has simply allowed these traditions to continue for much longer.

That doesn’t mean the Tarahumara, or anyone else, are born to run 100-milers with ease. “Tarahumara runners are just as challenged as Western ultramarathoners,” the authors write, “and they too suffer from injuries, cramps, nausea, and other problems when racing long distances.” Moreover, only a small fraction of the population actually participates in these races; though others support the runners and may run a few laps, they don’t cover long distances.

This is what the authors dub “the fallacy of the athletic savage.” There is no secret ingredient—a preindustrial diet, flimsy running sandals, a hard subsistence-farming lifestyle, a lack of cable TV, or even insensitivity to pain—that makes running 100 miles easy. The authors trace the long history of racial stereotypes about pain and how it has been applied to the Tarahumara. For example, the New York World in 1926 described two Tarahumara men as finishing “without signs of fatigue a distance that would exhaust most horses” after they covered 65 miles in just under ten hours. This simply isn’t true. Ultrarunning is difficult even for the Tarahumara, and each person who chooses to do it overcomes many of the same challenges the rest of us face.

The Big Picture

If the Tarahumara don’t have any special advantages, why are so many of them able to perform such prodigious feats? Their ability, the authors suggest, “derives from hard work, physically active lifestyles, determination, and the spiritual and social values they place on endurance running.”

That last part is the big one: they run because it’s important and meaningful to them. There are some beautiful passages in the article where the Tarahumara elders “likened the effort of guiding the unpredictable ball over the lengthy race to navigating the complex, chaotic journey of life.” It’s a form of prayer and of forging social ties within and among communities. “It is thus not surprising,” the paper concludes, “that many of these same elements are increasingly common in major big-city marathons that have become celebrations of fitness and community as well as to raise money for charity.”

In other words, it’s not about the shoes. Societies become good at the things they value, and the Tarahumara, rather than possessing some exotic hidden superpower, simply reflect that truth.


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