Aquatic Ape Theory

Christopher Kankel (ckank@avatar.NoSubdomain.NoDomain)
23 Jan 1997 23:27:41 GMT

Not long ago, I stumbled on the book _The_Descent_of_Woman_ written in
the early 1970's by Elaine Morgan, a british journalist. She discusses
the likelihood that man has a partially aqatic past. I present below
the references that I've read and the major evidence in support of the
aquatic ape theory. Has anyone else ever heard of this and what is it's
standing among professional human evolutionists and anthropologists?
What do they see as its major short-comings if they've examined it at
all? I've scoured the literature and can only find rare references to it.

I hope some of you will find useful the references included below.

This is quite an interesting theory, its primary hypothesis, as I
understand it, being that sometime after the ape/human split approximately
some few millions of years ago during marked geologic and tectonic
activity in central Africa our phylogenetic ancestors spent an
evolutionarily significant phase as aquatic or semi-aquatic mammals,
possibly on an island, in eastern Central Africa as their native habitat
underwent dramatic alterations. Only after this time did man or his
ancestors emerge onto the African savanah already standing upright and
sporting a big brain if in fact he ever spent any time on the savanah. In
the middle of this centry this idea, albeit in a much cruder form, was hit
upon by Max Westenhofer in Germany who in 1942 devoted a chapter on this
aquatic theory in his book _Der_Eigenweg_des_Menschen_ and independently
by Sir Alister Hardy in England in the 1930s who didn't go public with it
until the 1960s when he gave a public talk and re-presented his ideas in
"Was Man More Aquatic in the Past" _New_Scientist_ 17 March 1960
p642-645, an un-peer-reviewed journal.

The major lines of initial evidence stemmed from our marked differences
from the apes and similarities to aquatic mammals. First, we have a layer
of subcutaneous fat and are naked unlike apes but much like whales,
dolphins, manatees, and hippopotmusses. Second, we aren't bent at the
hips, i.e. we can walk upright and are bipedal, but neither are whales,
dolphins, and manatees bent at the hips. This arguably offers some kind of
swimming advantage as the hind limbs don't drag along in the water. It
also leads to ventro-ventral copulation, something we share with sea
mammals but not our closest ape relatives. The hair we do have on our
bodies is fluid-dynmically arranged. These ideas have been refined by
subsequent thinkers, most notably, Elaine Morgan who is not a scientist
but nevertheless has noted some interesting facts and drawn some
provocative conclusions in her four books _The_Descent_of_Woman_ (which
unfortunately contains some strident attacks on Desmond Morris among
others but is still chock-full-o' interesting ideas), _The_Aquatic_Ape_,
_The_Descent_of_the_Child_, and _The_Scars_of_Evolution_ and her numerous
articles in _New_Scientist_ (not peer reviewed, "The Aquatic Hypothesis"
12 April 84 p11-13; "Sweaty Old Man and the Sea" 21 March 85 p27-8; "In
the Beginning Was the Water" 6 March 86 p62-3; "Lucy's Child" 25 Dec/Jan
86/87 p13-15). She has been joined most visibly (I say this because this
is one of the few articles I've been able to find in the literature) by
Marc Verhaegen who may be a medical doctor (I don't know) and has
published a presumably peer-reviewed article in _Medical_Hypotheses_
vol16 1985 pp17-32 and has contributed a short letter to _Nature_ vol352
22 Jan 87 pp305-306 entitled "Origin of Hominid Bipedalism". Together,
they attribute the following features of man to his aquatic past:

1) subcutaneous fat
2) furlessness
3) bipedality
4) descended larynx and partial voluntary respiratory control with the
possiblility of hyperventilation
5) bradycardia which I guess is a diving reflex (slowing of the heart
in water)
6) salty tears and salty sweat
7) head hairs and sebum
8) dilute urine
9) lack of the so-called genetic 'baboon-marker' which all other African
primates have except humans which they may not have needed since they were
evolving on an island
10) ability to vocalize, which is at a premium in water

All their arguments depend on interpretations of already existing data and
rather uncontroversial facts. The toughest criticism I can find by other
experts is the lack of fossil evidence but I don't know what to make of
this criticism since the proponents of the theory see this as a strong
point claiming that many if not most hominid fossils have been gathered
from areas that would have likely been wet at the time of deposition.

For another literature article concerning the possible whereabouts of the
island on which our ancestors may have evolved, see "Evolution of Human
Bipedalism: a hypothesis about where it happened"
_Philosophical_Transactions_of_the_Royal_Society,_London_Series_B v292
pp103-107 1981. Apparently there was a "Symposium on Human Evolution--The
Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction" Valkenburg, Netherlands, 28-30 August 1987
in which a series of papers were submitted. I am trying to find a
collection of these papers but have thusfar been unsuccessful.
If anyone can help out on this point, I'd greatly appreciate it. At least two
of the papers are as follows: Schuitema, Kerstin 1990 "The Significance of
the human diving reflex" and Ellis, Derek 1990 Chpt 13 "Is an aquatic ape
viable in terms of marine ecology and primate behaviour?"