Tarahumara: The Running People
Nestled in northern Mexico and the canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental is a small tribe of indigenous people known as the Tarahumara. They call themselves Rarámuri, loosely translated as "running people," "foot-runner," "swift of foot," or "he who walks well." They are known for evading the Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century and keeping their cave-dwelling culture alive and secluded. They are also known for their long distance running and their superior health, not displaying the common health issues of "modern" societies.
A recent National Geographic study (Nov. 2008) states: "When it comes to the top 10 health risks facing American men, the Tarahumara are practically immortal: Their incidence rate is at or near zero in just about every category, including diabetes, vascular disease, and colorectal cancer…Plus, their supernatural invulnerability isn't just limited to their bodies; the Tarahumara have mastered the secret of happiness as well, living as benignly as bodhisattvas in a world free of theft, murder, suicide, and cruelty."
So what is the Tarahumara story and what can we learn from them? How can we use their history as an example for our own primal living? For some they may not be an example of what is considered primal, but they are one of the closest we can find in today's world.
The Tarahumara are most likely derived from the Paquime civilization that lived in northern Mexico between A.D. 900 and 1340. The Paquime were likely decendants of the Paleo-Indians of the Americas, but as records don't exist this cannot be traced. Archaeological evidence shows the Paquime lived in mountain caves or adobe huts and ate rabbit, bison, deer, antelope, and turkey. As agriculture had been introduced by their time, they also grew corn (maize). Most of the Paquime civilization fell in the early 15th century to invaders.
The Tarahumara are persistence hunters that also tend goats, cattle and have family orchards. Many are also small-scale farmers who grow corn, beans, squash, and potatoes. Most of them do not have an income, they farm to sustain themselves. The rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre Occidental forces the Tarahumara to have numerous small fields covering up to 80 square miles.
A staple of the Tarahumara is pinole, a mixture of water and ground corn. Some say pinole to the Tarahumara is like rice to Asian cultures. Pinole is served at most meals, along with beans, squash, and meat (even including rabbits and mice).
Tesgüino, or corn alcohol, is a major part of their culture. They barter with tesgüino and their religious practices are focused on the beverage. The drink is mostly made with corn, but they also use agave, cactus fruits, wheat, Mesquite seeds, berries, and other fruits.
Corn (grain), legumes, and tubers are on the non-primal fuel lists. However, the daily lives of the Tarahumara can give reasons for their consumption.
For the Tarahumara, long distance running is part of who they are. The mountainous terrain and scattered fields makes them strong runners out of necessity. They need to get from one place to another. As persistence hunters, they will chase down deer, catching them when the animals slow from exhaustion.
As Don Kardong states: "The Tarahumara are said to travel up to 70 miles a day, 170 miles without stopping, 500 miles a week carrying 40 pounds of mail."
Running is so much a part of their lives, it has come to define their culture. The Tarahumara even run for recreation. They have "rarahipari" races where teams kick a baseball-sized wooden ball through canyons until participants drop out from exhaustion. The last team still running wins. These races can last two days and they involve entire communities. And it's not just Tarahumara men who run; the women also have similar races using sticks.
The Tarahumara showed their running prowess even in our society. In the 1993 Leadville 100, 4 of the first 5 finishers were Tarahumara. All 7 Tarahumara finished in the top 11. Victoriano Churro, the winner, was 55 years old.
The Tarahumara wear "huaraches" ("sandals" in Spanish), also called "Akaka." They are made of leather thongs that wind around the ankle and connect to a used tire strip.
This supports the growing trend in our own culture – running barefoot or with minimal covering helps runners land on the front part of the foot and allows the legs to cushion the impact. This is more efficient and results in fewer injuries, as runners also strengthen their feet.
The Tarahumara are known for their good health, which most people attribute to their basic diet and endurance running. Some primal folks especially may be shocked at the large amounts of carbs and sugars in the Tarahumara's daily diet. However, take into consideration how much they exercise. They burn all of the fuel they ingest.
Also note that the Tarahumara have adapted to some modern conveniences, such as agriculture. Their Paleo-Indian ancestors were true nomadic hunter/gatherers who battled for existence, hunting bison, game, aquatic animals, and a variety of plants. The Tarahumara have learned to grow certain crops and are still nomadic in a sense, running between fields and communities, to maintain their lifestyle.
Many will also argue that their alcohol consumption is not healthy. Yet, note that making tesgüino is tied to their religious beliefs (like many other cultures) and it is also expensive. Communities may hold a few tesgüino festivals for communal labor per year; for most, it's not an everyday luxury.
However, their diet could be improved. Studies show that there are nutritional deficiencies, especially with iron levels in the women. The tribe has been encouraged to plant more iron-rich foods, like spinach.
They are also facing the influence of the outside world when it comes to their diet. The National Geographic study relates that the Tarahumara now "eat a lot of Maruchan, the Japanese instant noodles that come in plastic-foam tubs. Foil-wrapped potato chips, too, and plastic liters of Coca-Cola, and Tecate beer in pop-top cans."
This is hardly the diet of their ancestors and they are on the track to the health issues our own society faces. There are varying numbers of how many Tarahumara are left (anywhere from 50,000-105,000). These are still not large numbers and the outside influences seem to be more and more prevalent. The Tarahumara may have evaded the Spanish conquerors, but will their culture survive the onslaught of Western fast food and laziness?