Like sharks and honeybees, humans use a Lévy walk pattern while foraging, according to a new study in which the Hadza people, hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, wore wristwatches with GPS trackers that followed their movements. (Credit: Brian Wood/Yale University)

Sharks, bees, and hunters all ‘walk’ this way

A mathematical pattern of movement called a Lévy walk describes the foraging behavior of many animals, including sharks and honeybees, and now for the first time human hunter-gatherers, too.

The Lévy walk pattern appears to be ubiquitous in animals, similar to the golden ratio, phi, a mathematical ratio that has been found to describe proportions in plants and animals throughout nature.

One of the last hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth, the Hadza people of Tanzania still hunt on foot with traditional foraging methods. (Credit: Brian Wood/Yale University)
One of the last hunter-gatherer tribes on Earth, the Hadza people of Tanzania still hunt on foot with traditional foraging methods. (Credit: Brian Wood/Yale University)

“Scientists have been interested in characterizing how animals search for a long time,” says David Raichlen, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, “so we decided to look at whether human hunter-gatherers use similar patterns.”

The Hadza people of Tanzania are one of the last big-game hunters in Africa, and one of the last groups on Earth to still forage on foot with traditional methods. “If you want to understand human hunter-gatherer movement, you have to work with a group like the Hadza,” Raichlen says.

For a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, members of the tribe wore wristwatches with GPS units that tracked their movement while on hunting or foraging bouts.

The GPS data showed that while the Hadza use other movement patterns, the dominant theme of their foraging movements is a Lévy walk—the same pattern used by many other animals when hunting or foraging.

“Detecting this pattern among the Hadza, as has been found in several other species, tells us that such patterns are likely the result of general foraging strategies that many species adopt, across a wide variety of contexts,” says study co-author Brian Wood, an anthropologist at Yale University who has worked with the Hadza people since 2004.

Amusement park amble

“This movement pattern seems to occur across species and across environments in humans, from East Africa to urban areas,” says Adam Gordon, study co-author and a physical anthropologist at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

“It shows up all across the world in different species and links the way that we move around in the natural world. This suggests that it’s a fundamental pattern likely present in our evolutionary history.”

The Lévy walk, which involves a series of short movements in one area and then a longer trek to another area, is not limited to searching for food. Studies have shown that humans sometimes follow a Lévy walk while ambling around an amusement park. The pattern also can be used as a predictor for urban development.

“Think about your life,” Raichlen says. “What do you do on a normal day? Go to work and come back, walk short distances around your house? Then every once in a while you take these long steps, on foot, bike, in a car or on a plane. We tend to take short steps in one area and then take longer strides to get to another area.”

Walk patterns

Following a Lévy walk pattern does not mean that humans don’t consciously decide where they are going, Raichlen says. “We definitely use memories and cues from the environment as we search, but this pattern seems to emerge in the process.”

In future studies, Raichlen and his colleagues hope to understand the reasons for using a Lévy walk and whether the pattern is determined by the distribution of resources in the environment.

“We’re very interested in studying why the Hadza use this pattern, what’s driving their hunting strategies, and when they use this pattern versus another pattern,” says Herman Pontzer, an anthropologist at Hunter College.

“We’d really like to know how and why specific environmental conditions or individual traits influence movement patterns,” Wood adds.

Describing human movement patterns could also help anthropologists to understand how humans transported raw materials in the past, how our home ranges expanded, and how we interact with our environment today, Raichlen says.

“We can characterize these movement patterns across different human environments, and that means we can use this movement pattern to understand past mobility.”

The National Science Foundation funded the research.

Source: University of Arizona

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  1. JPL

    If you want to understand the reasons the Hadza use, in their hunting activities, the Levy walk pattern as opposed to some other pattern, you have to go with them while they are hunting and ask them, right when they make a movement of interest, not relying on GPS and asking later outside the activity. The knowledge guiding the movement for the hunters is tacit and intuitive, but they will be able to give reasons while engaged in the activity. The GPS will give you the patterns; for the reasons, you need to get those from the agents.

    What I would like to know is, the reasons for the Levy walk behaviour presumably lie deep in evolutionary history; but for humans, doe this mean that their foraging patterns are guided by instinct, or is it that given the purpose of foraging, the Levy walk pattern has some purely mathematical explanation, in terms of efficient solution, etc.?

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