I spent most of last Saturday morning (3 am until 7:30 am here in Perth) virtually attending the latest CARTA symposium on human evolution (the afternoon of Fri 14th May in California). There were nine talks, led by two of the leading lights of human evolution these days, Dan Lieberman and Herman Pontzer.


I found all the talks interesting but it was so frustrating that at least 5 out of 9 of them were openly promoting one, quite extreme, savannah-based model of human evolution, Dan Lieberman’s ‘Endurance Running” idea.

Now, I knew this would happen so I submitted a question to them early – a week before the symposium – to try to get a criticism in…

This is what I wrote…

Dear Sir or Madam
I have a question I’d like to put to Dan Lieberman, Herman Pontzer and Tatum Simonsen. In fact, I’d like to put it to anyone and everyone there.

Why is it that the field of palaeoanthropology still has such a blatantly obvious blind spot when it comes to (dare I even mention it) moving through water?  

The latest paper on human evolution published in Science last week, “Fossil apes and human evolution” (Almecija et al 2021), does not mention the word ‘water’ once. Typically, the authors’ discussion of the putative locomotor repertoire of the last common ancestor of Gorilla/Pan/Homo is most notable by one absence, wading, even though they lament that such reconstructions “are seriously hampered by the lack of current analogs.” 

Moving through shallow water is obviously, exactly such a possible current analog. It is the one scenario 100% guaranteed to induce unsupported bipedal locomotion (not just posturing) for as long as the conditions prevail, in otherwise quadrupedal extant apes. Therefore wading-climbing provides the perfect putative precursor to both knuckle-walking and our striding gait. 

I notice that of the nine sessions at this symposium, specifically on human physical activity, the only one to mention moving through water does so in the context of “challenging environmental extremes.” Should the public take it then, that wading through shallow water, or even going for the occasional swim, is seen as an extreme behaviour by the custodians of our understanding of human origins? If not, if it can be finally admitted that our ancestors may have occasionally got their toes wet, why is it still seen as a bridge too far to consider that such behaviours may have been part of the regime of selection shaping our evolution? ————————————–
Dr Algis Kuliukas
Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology

Of course this question, and all the ones I asked at the meeting wre ignored. In one hour of question & answers, the organisers chose the most technically tedious and least critical ones. I asked as many questions against the “ER” model as I did in favour of the wading hypothesis but I might as well had not bothered.

In frustration the next day I wrote to complain to the organisers and, to be fair they did reply, giving me the usual “there isn’t time to cover everything” kind of response.


This is what I have just written back…

Thanks for replying, Lindsay
I appreciate that public meetings have time limits and so have to be selective in what they cover, but half of my frustration was that such a high proportion (at least 5 out of 9) of Friday’s seminars were focused on just one, rather extreme, variant of a savannah-based model – Dan Lieberman’s “Endurance Running” idea.
Now, like everyone, I love Dan and always enjoy hearing him speak but it’s really incumbent on the organisers of scientific symposia like this to provide means such that even those models seen as de rigeur can be criticised. For example, I found it astonishing that Dan started his talk admitting that even Usain Bolt would not be able to outrun an average quadruped, let alone an antelope or a leopard, and yet still went on to espouse his “endurance running” model. This, note is the idea that chasing down an antelope for several hours (so much for Wheeler’s mid-day foraging idea, then) and over 20-30km was a key driver of human evolution. I wanted to ask – once the beast was slain, what then? How to drag the carcass past all those hungry savannah predators back to base where, presumably the women and children were just hanging around? How did they take sufficient fresh water with them to replenish the copious amounts lost whilst sweating? And what about those women? Presumably they were practicing wobbling their hips to entice “Man the Mighty Marathon Runner” when he got back with some meat. This is exactly the male-centred view of evolution that Elaine Morgan railed against in 1972. It’s unbelievable that, fifty years later, the custodians of understanding our evolution are still stuck in the same old savannah mindset. At least it proves John Langdon was wrong about claiming it was a “straw man” Elaine Morgan invented!
Meanwhile, the wading hypothesis of hominid bipedal origins continues to be completely ignored despite it providing the one and only scenario guaranteed to induce an otherwise quadrupedal great ape to move (not just pose) bipedally, without any support from its upper limbs (unlike all the arboreal models). The fact that Hadar was a wetland for a million years, and that both Koobi Fora and Olduvai Gorge had prominent water courses at their sites, is ignored. That Sahelanthropus was found in the middle of paleo lake Chad in a layer of rock named after hippo ancestors is airbrushed away. That Danuvius, named after the Roman River God because of its palaeohabitat, was found among copious aquatic fauna, 80% of which were turtles – flies under the radar.
One day, someone among your ranks is going to wake up one morning with the thought crossing their mind that maybe the mislabelled, misrepresented so-called “aquatic ape hypothesis” (far better labelled “waterside hypotheses of human evolution”) isn’t pseudoscience at all. Perhaps it’s the best idea pertaining to human evolution since Darwin.
Then, finally, the scientific method will be able to be applied on this. So far, it’s just been tribalism.
Dr Algis Kuliukas
Anatomy, Physiology and Human Biology


18th May 2021