The Aquatic Ape
Imagine our ancient ancestors, maybe great-great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers of the “cavemen”, on a sunny afternoon swimming in the surf and lying on the beach. Imagine them diving for shellfish and scheming ways to catch the elusive fish of the shallow off-shore waters. Imagine this and you begin to see the picture painted by the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. Believe it or not, it’s a very controversial picture.
The hypothesis proposes that the evolution of early humans included a semi-aquatic phase. More precisely, that at a pivotal point in our species’ history our ancestors spent a considerable amount of time in and around shallow waters. Catching fish, bathing, swimming, cooling off, some of modern humankind’s favorite activities. While that may be an easy idea to swallow, the controversy stems from the assertion that this watery lifestyle was in fact the driving force behind the evolution of many of our species’ characteristic ‘human’ traits.
Our near-hairlessness, the growth patterns of what hair we do have, sweating, crying, our descended larynx, the high water content of our feces, the shape of our noses and even our upright posture are among many points of contention in the debate. The hypothesis argues that many or all of these adaptations are better explained by a semi-aquatic life than a life on the savannah. The African savannah has long been widely accepted as the human species’ evolutionary environment, and this environment offers very different explanations for our human traits. If the hypothesis were to be proven it may throw all of evolutionary anthropology into a new context.
This was one of those images that simply demanded to be drawn. It sat, in its many possible forms, in the back of my mind and in the periphery of my vision since I first heard about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. The concept struck a chord with me right away, and provided me a distinct visual inspiration that science only rarely does.
I suspect that with its very speculative evidence the theory could not have survived this long, let alone grow in currency, if not for its appeal to the imagination. Imagining our ancestors in this way can make it that much easier to relate to them, it makes them that much more human. Speaking for myself, while I can’t say if it’s true or false, I find something beautiful in the idea that our earliest ancestors swam in the sea and dipped their toes in the tide.
Maybe this is why today the most adamant champion of the theory is not a scientist but a writer. Elaine Morgan has written 6 books on the topic, and in the video below from the TED website she gives an empassioned talk in its defense.
More about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis:
From Elaine Morgan’s Website