Friday, 31 July 2009

Fact or Fiction?

A few nights ago, I have finished reading "The Human Animal", written by Desmond Morris.
Not all of what he wrote was new to me, but there were some surprising insights, and one theory I had admittedly never heard of before:

The Aquatic Ape.

Now, this is not Mr. Morris' theory, but was brought up first in 1930 by marine biologist Alister Hardy.
In short, the theory says that, at some stage during our evolution from ape to human, there was possibly a period which saw us living so close to the water that we were practically living in it.
His idea was of an early primate who settled on islands close to the East African coast to get away from predators, and lived there in small colonies, more or less leading the lifestyle of some sort of "tropical penguin".
The body changed to become a veritable swimming "machine". The "aquatic ape" would have been, like a penguin, very agile in water but rather clumsy on land.

Hardy uses some facts about our bodies to underline his theory:

- Our spine is more flexible than that of the other primates, which enables us to swim more like an otter than like an ape.
- We shed tears, just like many other sea-living animals, but none of the other primates do.
- Our sense of balance is as good as that of a sea lion, and much better than that of the other primates.
- We have shed our thick furs, which is typical for primates but not for sea-living animals. Those always have very short or no fur at all. Being streamlined like this makes moving in the water a lot easier.
- We still have remnants of webbing between our fingers and toes. Some say that this is simply how all primates' hands are built, but the chimpanzee (our closest relative, genetically speaking) does not have them.
About 7 percent of humans alive today have properly webbed toes.
- We are still quite capable swimmers, whereas the big apes can't swim at all.
- We can hold our breath up to 3 1/2 minutes under water. No other primate has such control about their breathing, not even remotely.
- Like other sea-living animals, we have a diving reflex. As soon as our face is covered with water, our automatic reaction is to close our respiratory passages, and the tiny bronchial tubes contract, even if the rest of our body is totally dry.

None of the other primates has this reflex.
- Our noses are formed in a way that no water gets in when diving. No other primate has a nose formed like this.
- Newborn babies automatically hold their breath under water and swim without fear.

This is, of course, only a very concise summary of the points Desmond Morris mentions in his book.

Within seconds of research on the internet, I found a site which examins the Aquatic Ape Theory in a scientifc, critical manner:

Have you come across this theory before?
And what do you think?

Don't worry - I'm not looking for an outbreak of fierce pro-and-con-arguments; I am just - as usual - very curious :-)


  1. Well one learned something every day Meike. I had absolutely no knowledge of any of that.

    1. Neither had I, until I came across this book!