The return of the aquatic ape |

The return of the aquatic ape

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

There is a reason that humans walk upright, that we shed body fur, that we store subcutaneous fat and that we bear fat babies. According to the aquatic ape theory, it’s all because we evolved in a watery environment, something that may come in handy given forecasts for rising ocean levels due to climate change.

As ice caps melt, causing seas and oceans to flood lowlands where millions live today, we humans may find ourselves needing to regress to our evolutionary roots. Some scientists claim there is real evidence of a long ago dip in tidal waters where seafood was our main diet and where seawater entered our blood — literally.

The aquatic ape theory is a radical shift away from the savannah theory, in which homo sapiens are supposed to have descended from hairy apes, dropping down from the trees and taking to two legs on the hunt for prey across the plains of Africa.

Elaine Morgan, in her book “The Scars of Evolution,” suggests that the savannah theory is flawed because man, as a hairless, clumsy, upright walker, would have been easy prey for larger, faster, better equipped carnivores. Lions, tigers and bears would have devoured our slow, awkward, evolutionarily-challenged, bipedal ancestors, ending the brief, experimental appearance of homo sapiens.

“In the aquatic scenario,” Morgan writes, “the position is reversed. Walking erect in flooded terrain was less an option than a necessity. The behavioral reward — being able to walk and breathe at the same time — was instantly available. And most of the disadvantages of bipedalism were canceled out.”

Why, she asks, would homo sapiens choose to forgo the shade, security and food sources of trees for vulnerability from exposure to the harsh sun, scarce water and challenging fauna of the African savannahs? She answers that we didn’t, which accounts for the enormous differences between us and the majority of the apes, something most evolutionary scientists have ignored.

Morgan suggests that man’s upright transition was made easier by being weightless in the medium of rising water which, like today, resulted from climate change and ocean warming. Unlike the apes, chimps and orangutans, with which we are thought to be in close relation, man’s choice was either to stand upright as a tidal wader or drown. And then there was food.

The availability of seafood was far greater, Morgan writes, than the scant fare available on desert plains, especially given competition with other omnivores, many of which would have been lethal to us struggling bipeds. Shellfish, seaweed and a plethora of other foods were ubiquitous for the aquatic humanoid, who shed body fur to be better suited to swimming and developed body fat as insulation.

“Some of the richest food sources in the world are found in tropical wetland and off-shore waters,” Morgan writes. “The food supply, in quantity, variety and ease of procurement would far exceed what the savannah could offer to a small, unspecialized primate.” And then there is body fat.

Morgan states that humans shed their fur and gained body fat — unlike the apes that kept their fur and have little body fat — as insulation against the cool waters in which we were often immersed. In this, we are more like whales and seals than like hairy apes. And then there are fat human babies.

Human children are born fat, even if that requires draining the mother of nutrients during gestation. Human children, Morgan says, needed to be fat if they were to survive birth into aquatic environments — which mirrored the womb — where saltwater is the medium in which life develops.

Having plenty of fat, writes Morgan, is far more appropriate to humans, and especially to women, than the waif-like appearance dictated by modern fashion. Evolutionarily, fat is where it’s at.

Facing climate change, where many human habitats may be flooded, man will again face the choice of migrating from those regions or becoming aquatic. Since a vocal minority of climate deniers has vetoed serious and concerted effort to stem carbon emissions, we humans are perhaps fated to rejoin our aquatic ape ancestors and return to the waters from which we sprang.

Swimming lessons, anyone?

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at