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.
The idea… defined
So, let’s start, at last, with a simple new name and a testable definition of what this idea actually is. I think the label “aquatic ape hypothesis” has been part of the problem. When Elaine coined the term, she was being ironic. It was meant in this sense: Of the apes, which are most definitely not aquatic, we are the most aquatic. Unfortunately the irony seems to have flown right over the heads of some experts who should have known better. Taking the term ‘aquatic’ literally is not a good start and leads to all sorts of misconceptions, so I have argued that it should be changed to something closer to the original concept. I use the term “waterside” as it clearly indicates a terrestrial life style but one at the water’s edge. The idea is our ancestors waded, swam and dived more than chimp and gorilla ancestors did, not that we became aquatic in any proper sense.
Another difficulty is with the term “ape”. This came from Hardy’s original idea that the “more aquatic” phase happened in the distant past, before humans existed but since 1960 evidence has emerged that indicates that the most “aquatic” times in our evolution seem to have been much more recent, so I argue that the word “ape” should be changed too.
Finally, there are many variants of Hardy’s idea today, arguing for different time scales, degrees of aquatic locomotion and modes of selection. So I think it is wrong to give the impression that this is one, single, model of human evolution. Rather, it is a cluster of related ones. In 2011 some of us published a book commemorating 50 years since Hardy’s New Scientist paper.
In it Elaine Morgan and I wrote a chapter which reviewed some of these ideas and proposed this new label and definition…
Waterside hypotheses of human evolution assert that selection from wading, swimming and diving and procurement of food from aquatic habitats have significantly affected the evolution of the lineage leading to Homo sapiens as distinct from that leading to Pan.
Kuliukas & Morgan (2011:118).
Please feel free to e-mail any criticisms and/or corrections.