The aquatic ape theory : Not quite nevermind

The aquatic ape theory (AAT) or aquatic ape hypothesis (AAH) is a fringe theory claiming to explain a large part of the evolutionary heritage of human beings, it is certainly controversial and is rejected by the majority of the academic community.

However AAT may hold more weight than the scientific community would like to admit and it could potentially be a large piece of the puzzle for the genesis of the cerebral ape: Homo sapiens.

So what is AAT all about?

AAT holds the view that our ancestors thrived and adapted to life in a semi aquatic or even fully aquatic environment. You may be forgiven for instantly thinking that this is weapons grade pseudoscientific bullshit when you hear this but when you look at some of the claims within AHH it can become a compelling scientific argument.

Here is the thesis of marine biologist Alistair Hardy (one of AAT early proponents)

“My thesis is that a branch of this primitive ape-stock {hominoids} was forced by competition from life in the trees to feed on the sea-shores and to hunt for food, shell fish, sea-urchins etc., in the shallow waters off the coast. I suppose that they were forced into the water just as we have seen happen in so many other groups of terrestrial animals. I am imagining this happening in the warmer parts of the world, in the tropical seas where Man could stand being in the water for relatively long periods, that is, several hours at a stretch”

As far as fringe theories go it’s not the most outlandish you might come across, but is there any evidence?

Well no, nothing solid.

But AAT proponents point out that hard evidence is rare in planetology and it does cite a host of anecdotal evidence in offering explanations to why we have evolved certain parts of our anatomy evolved differently from the other great apes (chimps, orang-utans, bonobos and gorillas).

Here are a few of AAT claims

Bipedalism: An obvious difference between us and the other apes is the back that we walk upright and ATT proposes that this was due to apes being immersed in a shallow aquatic environment and wading through the water on two legs (possibly while wielding a spear to hunt with) was the most efficient from of locomotion. After millions of years the apes evolved to be bipedal leading to early human species such as (Australopithecus).

Hairlessness: So compared to other apes we have very little hair, why is this?

There are two main reasons other animals have evolved to be hairless, the first is adapting to life in a subterranean (underground) environment just like this handsome bastard pictured below.


He may look like a fucked up mutated sausage but this hairless gangster is immune to cancer, cant feel pain and lives for over 30 years

And the second is reason for animals to loose hair is adapting to a marine environment, the ancestors of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) lost their hair in favour of blubber as it is much better at insulation in water. Humans have the highest natural fat content of all the great apes and the AAT crew propose this is an adaptation to a marine environment just like cetaceans.

Noses: Ever wondered why we have noses and other apes don’t have noses and just have snout’s (essentially just holes in their faces) well AHH proponents think that it is simply to stop water splashing in it, if you think about it swimming front crawl would be kinda hard if you didn’t have a nose.

vernix caseosa: Nope this aint a harry potter spell – It’s the layer of cheesy waxy gunk that new-born babies rock with their birthday suit. This substance is only found in new-born human babies and seals.

Water babies: New born babies are shit at getting about on land but they are surprisingly able in water as this clip shows.

They also have a built in dive reflex that stops them inhaling water when submerged, it even slows their heart rate and reduces blood flow to extremities. This reflex disappears when the babies reach 6 months of age.

Long hair: ATT proposes that females have long hair so babies can hang onto it while the mother is half submerged in the water.

Skin ridges: after being immersed in water human skin starts to wrinkle, this actually makes it easier to grip wet tools such as a spear.

At this point you may be on the way to being convinced on the legitimacy of this theory but it’s time to put the brakes on a bit, many of these adaptations have other theories explaining them which are supported by evidence from the fossil record and the academic community.

For example being hairless, bipedal and having a nose are all adaptations for endurance running hunting in a desert environment which is the current widely accepted theory and although the majority of the scientific community does get things wrong from time to time they are usually on the money.

However it is definitely not right to throw the AAT on the pseudoscientific band wagon along with the homoeopathy and flat earth society bat shit crazy theories because the underlying logic of the theory does follow a scientific narrative.

And this is the problem with scientific debates – there is pressure to align yourself with a side and everyone viciously argues and undermines each others arguments, career and even personality.Because of this it’s hard to maintain a position that’s somewhere in the middle – the scientific community often scoffs at the ATT without even considering that although it reaches too far with its claims  one thing is irrefutably true.

We are the aquatic ape.

Chimps, Bonobos, orang-utans and gorillas can’t swim for shit, in fact they unfortunately often drown in zoo moats after falling in. We are by far the most capable in the water out of all the apes (It should be noted that compared to other animals we still suck at swimming, for example – tigers can swim 18mph and humans swim about 3mph).

But the fact remains, human beings ability to traverse and survive in water has undoubtedly saved millions of human lives and although our aquatic ability may be almost a side effect of evolving bipedalism for running long distances it is still a favourable trait that gave our species an advantage over other apes that couldn’t swim.

It is also perfectly plausible that some of the more outlandish AAT claims are true and that early human species habitually employed aquatic environments as nurseries and this had a substantial impact on our physiology. Opponents of AAH like to point out that this would be impossible because the water would be full of crocodiles but the jungle/desert would be full of all kinds of predators and crocodiles are actually quite easy to restrict access to with natural barriers like dams and secluded water areas may well have been the safest place for young humans.

It may be a bigger piece of the puzzle than mainstream science would like to admit.

check this doc for more info.