Did Humans Evolve as Swimmers?

While doing research for my post on the mammalian dive reflex, I stumbled across an interesting TED video. It discusses the idea that humans evolved as “aquatic apes” somewhere between the common ancestor between chimps (~6,500,000 years ago) and the first know Homo sapiens (~200,000 years ago). If you look at a timeline of paleolithic fossils, it’s hard to see where this would fit in.

From a speciation standpoint, this wouldn’t be unprecedented. Whales evolved to their current iterations from land mammals. Though not a direct evolutionary ancestor, think about the modern hippo. They spend the bulk of their time in the water… even for mating. Interesting evolutionary side-note: Did you know whales have vestigial hips and legs embedded in their bodies… similar to our tailbones? Did you also know that whales are sometimes born with external legs through peculiar gene expressions?

As you watch the video, keep in mind that the hypothesis doesn’t say that we evolved from apes who had moved into aquatic areas and became fully adapted to aquatic life. It merely suggests that our ancestors spent a significant amount of time in the water for hundreds of thousands of years (guessing)… or just long enough to begin to develop adaptations for “a life aquatic”. Compelling evidence is our slightly webbed fingers and toes, and our ability to consciously override our breath control. The latter is key for diving and isn’t found in the majority of mammalian species. It’s also related to our ability to speak, a la voice control.

However, the mammalian dive reflex doesn’t really fit with the hypothesis. Since it’s found in nearly all mammals, there’s no reason to believe that the hominin line evolved it during the Paleolithic.

Did I mention this theory is almost universally ignored? Did I mention I don’t think there’s currently any compelling reason to believe it? Oh well, it’s interesting. It also attempts to explain some things that aren’t necessarily 100%  explained by the strict African savanna hunter-gatherer hypothesis. As such, I think it’s an interesting exercise in testing our assumptions…

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Edit: I was sent the following video via a friend on Twitter:

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Whatchya think?

11 Comments
  1. pieter d 5 years ago

    Andrew,

    A very good resource (although it is a critique of the AAT) here: http://www.aquaticape.org

    Interesting discussion. And as always, in evolution, it will probably not be pure black and white. Probably multiple factors will have contributed. Although it could be more black, or more white…

    Cheers

    • Profile photo of Andrew Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      It's surprising to me how much effort the detractors put into discredit this theory. There doesn't seem to be any significant science supporting it so it almost seems like tilting at windmills. That is a good resource though… For pointing out the interesting claims of the theory if nothing else.

  2. David Csonka 5 years ago

    There needs to be a unified theory of Michael Phelps, that guy is a freak of nature! Seriously though, I don't think it is likely that the savanna runners hypothesis answers everything. Why do we have webbing, even if just a little, between our fingers and toes?

    • Profile photo of Andrew Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      The aquatic ape theory's attempt to tie Omega-3's in to heavy fish consumption is interesting.

      Michael Phelps and Dean Karnazes have been dietarily interesting to me for a while. Rumors are floating around that Dean has gone paleo, but I'm not sure how true that is… at least… while he's racing. Evidence: He has a "How
      To: Order a Pizza on the Run"
      post on his blog from 3 months ago.

      And… where are all the "Is Pot Paleo?" posts? :)

  3. Jeromie 5 years ago

    Just a side note: I like the recommended/referenced readings. I have just added two more to my Amazon wishlist, thank you. The Greatest Show On Earth was fascinating, I am glad you threw that in the mix. When I was leaning away from religion, The God Delusion and The Greatest Show On Earth were life-changers. Great post!

    • Profile photo of Andrew
      Andrew 5 years ago

      'Why Evolution Is True' is pretty good too. He does an excellent analysis of the huge (and predictable with evolutionary theory) difference between the types of life found on all volcanic versus all continental islands. There is simply no coherent argument anti-evolutionists can make to explain that.

      I don't know how I missed that argument before, but it's very convincing. The fact that the hominin line has the genes for vitamin C synthesis, but it's been deactivated, requiring us to get it from dietary sources is interesting too.

      • Jeromie 5 years ago

        I agree. Dawkins pointed out the laryngeal nerve and the eyeball. Those were pretty convincing for me. And the fact that we don't see certain species (e.g. kangaroo) except on isolated islands.

        I guess Moses forgot to drop them off on the mainland.

  4. CavemanJ 5 years ago

    Aquatic theory is very attractive. It does explain why babies know how to swim and hold their breath in their early years…

  5. paul groky 4 years ago

    I do not know the name of this theory on human evolution but I think it is very plausible – It is about the evolution of the upright walk and the development of an increased number of perspiratory glands accompanied by a loss of fur :

    at midday near the equator somewhere in africa the heat is unbearable. all animals hide in the shadow of trees in order to avoid overheating. this applies to prey and predators even today. hunting at midday in the equatorial sun was a free niche as it provided safety from predators and the prey wouldn't make it very far.

    – Upright walk is a good way to minimize the area exposed to direct sun.
    – An increased number of perspiratory glands is a good way to control body temperature.

    persistence hunting makes use of the preys disadvantage in perspiration capacity. check out this youtube video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUpo_mA5RP8

    sounds much better than the aquatic apes theory in my opinion…
    and a comment on the slightly webbed fingers as evidence for an presumptive aquatic lifestyle in human evolution: I keep my fingers close to each other when I swim and I would recommend it to you in case you don't.

  6. Marc Verhaegen 1 year ago

    FYI, an update of AAT. A better term is the littoral or coastal dispersal theory: rather than running over savannas (as in popular accounts of human evolution), Homo populations during the Ice Ages followed the coasts (as far as Indonesia, the Cape & England) & from the coasts up rivers, collecting different waterside & shallow aquatic plant & animal foods.
    Human Evolution in 2 special editions publishes the proceedings of the symposium (with David Attenborough & Don Johanson) on human waterside evolution "Human Evolution: Past, Present & Future" (London 8-10 May 2013):
    Special Edition Part 1 (end 2013)
    – Peter Rhys-Evans: Introduction
    – Stephen Oppenheimer: Human's Association with Water Bodies: the 'Exaggerated Diving Reflex' and its Relationship with the Evolutionary Allometry of Human Pelvic and Brain Sizes
    – JH Langdon: Human Ecological Breadth: Why Neither Savanna nor Aquatic Hypotheses can Hold Water
    – Stephen Munro: Endurance Running versus Underwater Foraging: an Anatomical and Palaeoecological Perspective
    – Algis Kuliukas: Wading Hypotheses of the Origin of Human Bipedalism
    – Marc Verhaegen: The Aquatic Ape Evolves: Common Misconceptions and Unproven Assumptions about the So-Called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
    – CL Broadhurst & Michael Crawford: The Epigenetic Emergence of Culture at the Coastline: Interaction of Genes, Nutrition, Environment and Demography.
    Google
    – econiche Homo
    – Rhys Evans Vaneechoutte
    marc verhaegen tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/AAT
    http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marc_Verhaegen
    independent.academia.edu/marcverhaegen

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