River Apes… Coastal People
The AAH – Rejected, or Just Misunderstood?
The so-called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (AAH) is very well known. Ask an audience of people interested in human evolution if they’ve heard of it and practically all of them will put their hands up. If you then ask them if they think it’s a good idea, almost all of them will put their hands down again.
Now, if you ask them to tell you what it actually is… it is interesting to see how many put their hands back up again.
I did this in December 2004 at the ASHB (Australasian Society for Human Biology) conference in Canberra, Australia. A few did indeed put their hands back up until I qualified the question a little…
So, basically the situation regarding the AAH appears to be something like this: It’s an idea about human evolution that everyone has heard of, that most people think is rather silly, but no-one can cite a specific paragraph in the literature where it is unambiguously defined. Now I do not think that is a very strong basis for a refutation.
Indeed, if you spend time looking through the scientific literature for that key refutation, that winning argument as to why it is wrong or a single piece of evidence which even implies it might be wrong (forget the notion of disproof in matters to do with paleoanthropology) I predict you will have a frustrating time.
As far as I know there are only three pieces in the literature which attempt some form of rejection.
In comparison there are over 40 pieces of literature by proponents and at least another 20 or so that contain references which are supportive or at least open to it. In science there is no concept of ‘majority rule’ or democracy but even so, it’s difficult to see how the ‘aquasceptic’ view appears to have won primacy.
One is tempted to ask: How did that happen? And on what basis were the three rejections made?
It is the purpose of this web site to suggest that this hypothesis has simply been misunderstood and as a consequence exaggerated from the start. If one forgets the images of primate seals, or mermen and women which presumably must have flashed in the minds of most critics and, instead, simply take the original proponent, Sir Alister Hardy, by his word and ask the question ‘Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?’ (with the emphasis on the word more) it is my understanding that the idea is perfectly plausible.
After all we do swim better than our nearest relatives the apes. We do have some traits which are unusual in primates but quite common is some aquatic species. Apes do tend to move in shallow water in the same way we do on dry land… bipedally, a characteristic almost no other mammal shares with them.
I’ve spend much of the last ten years of my life studying this area back in academia and the more I do the more convinced I am that the idea might well be right, if only one’s impression of what it’s actually claiming is scaled back a little.
Of course the evidence we have indicates that there never was an aquatic ape (in the sense that a seal is an aquatic mammal), but who really ever thought there was? I didn’t. I’ve always taken the AAH to mean that our ancestors lived next to water and, occasionally waded, swam and dived, that they were merely more aquatic than our ape cousins.
So, let’s start, at last, with a simple, testable definition of what the AAH actually is.
The AAH: The hypothesis that moving through water has acted as an agency of selection in the evolution of humans more than it has in the evolution of our ape cousins. And that, as a result, many of the major physical differences between humans and the other apes are best explained as adaptations to moving (e.g. wading, swimming and/or diving) better through various aquatic media and from greater feeding on resources that might be procured from such habitats.
I’m very pleased to report that several AAH proponents, including Elaine Morgan (but unfortunately not all), have been happy to endorse this first attempt at a definition. (Click here for more details and discussion)
Please feel free to e-mail any criticisms and/or corrections.