During a visit in Belgium, I met Dr Marc Verhaegen in Putte near Mechelen. Marc Verhaegen is a leading theorist of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis and is probably along Elaine Morgan the one who has published most about the AAH.
When we met at the train station in Mechelen, Marc told me that Elaine Morgan and Dr. Erika Schagatay once had visited him in Putte after a conference about the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis in Gent in 1999, and that they had visited the nearby zoo at Planckendael with a small population of Bonobos.
“When Elaine Morgan came here, she stepped right up to the bonobos, ignoring the other animals”, Marc Verhaegen told me during our visit in the zoo. “Then she watched them for half an hour, and we left the zoo.”
After the visit at the zoo, we drove to Verhaegen’s house in Putte. “I became interested in the theory when I read Morgan’s books about the AAH in the 70s and 80s, beginning with her first book in 1972”, Verhaegen explained. Since then, Verhaegen has spent a lot of time researching on the theory, and he keeps updated on new research in palaeoanthropology, physiology, biology and other fields. He is also the founder and editor of the well-known Yahoo group “Coastal Dispersal of Pleistocene archaic Homo (the so-called Aquatic Ape Theory)” with more than 600 members. He has also participated in all the larger conferences on the AAH over the years, as well as the latest one in London in 2013 – which I also attended.
Verhaegen has Turned Away from the Paradigm Once Formulated by Hardy and Morgan
However, Marc Verhaegen has since long abandoned the old paradigm formulated by Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan, according to which the aquatic phase in our evolution took place right after the split from the chimpanzee, for perhaps 7 million years ago, which was followed by a terrestrial phase. According to Marc Verhaegen, the waterside hypothesis is less about the split from the chimpanzees than about what happened with human ancestors belonging to the genus Homo for approximately the last two million years. “Homo erectus was clearly more adapted to a littoral lifestyle than its earlier forefathers”, Verhaegen said. “Their big very heavy (dense and thick) skeleton and broad pelvis indicate that they were shallow water divers, harvesting shellfish and probably seaweeds and other littoral foods.” Similar aquatic adaptations can be seen in Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals, still more than in Homo sapiens. “But it is likely that Homo sapiens became more used of wading in very shallow waters and walking along the waterside, and that they dived less frequently”, Verhaegen said. “This shift can have been due to an ability to extract resources in more shallow water, probably thanks to new technology, such as dugouts, reed boats, spears or nets.”
According to Verhaegen, other great ape ancestors have been living close to a water environment in the past. “We also must remember that the chimpanzee has evolved after they split from us”, Verhaegen said. “Over the last five million years they have become less acquainted to water, but at the time of the split we were most likely living in swamp or flooded or coastal forests”. Hence, the transformation to an aquatic phase was not a huge evolutionary step. “An upright body posture probably appeared because of stepping down vertically from the trees to the water.”
“The AAH is Primarily a Biological Theory”
Verhaegen emphasizes that the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis primarily is a biological theory, and not an archaeological theory. “Our bodies hold the key to our evolutionary background,” Verhaegen said. “That give us much better evidence than the fossils.” As a doctor, Verhaegen has a great anatomical and biological understanding of the human body, and from this perspective it is not strange that many doctors have been supporting the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis throughout the years. On the top of that, Verhaegen is also a great theorist and he is breaking new grounds in the development of the AAH. Unfortunately, many of Verhaegen’s theories are challenged, not only by critics of the AAH, but also of its proponents who insist on a “lighter” version of the theory. For example, the idea that Homo erectus or close relatives thereof were shallow-water divers, and that frequent wading and walking came later during the Pleistocene in our evolution, is still hard to accept for some proponents, even though significant archaeological and other data point in this direction. Verhaegen argues that several littoral adaptations only appeared in Homo erectus, not only a very heavy skeleton, but for instance also a low long flat skull, drastic brain expansion (arguably due to consumption of abundant brain-specific nutrients in shellfish etc.), an external nose, ear exostoses due to exposure to cold water, dorso-ventrally flattened thigh-bones (femora), intercontinental dispersal (including colonization of islands such as Flores, Sulawesi, Crete), traces of shellfish consumption and human-made engravings on shells, etc.
Wide Acceptance of Aquatic Life of Homo sapiens – but not of our Forebears
Today, the wider scientific community accept the fact that early Homo sapiens was often living close to seashore. The findings of 125,000-year-old tools in a former coral reef in Eritrea was published in Nature and reached the front page, and recent older findings, for instance, in the Pinnacle Point in South Africa has also got similar attention – and approval. However, most traditional paleoanthropologists will not admit that these people had evolved in an aquatic environment. They choose to see these adaptations as a colonization of one of many environments humans were living in, rather than an early evolutionary adaptation to an aquatic environment.
But why stop with Homo sapiens? Why doesn’t the community also accept aquatic adaptations in for example Homo erectus and other archaic-looking Homo species as for example Neanderthals that perhaps show the clearest signs of an aquatic adaptation? Why is it so difficult to accept these findings? Why do we only accept signs of an aquatic lifestyle after Homo sapiens had already emerged?
The visit in Putte was very pleasant and hospitable. We stayed up till late night in Verhaegen’s office, where he showed me books and publications of earlier conferences, as well as his own drawings of the possible features of Homo erectus. “I hope that the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis will get widely accepted before I pass away,” Verhaegen said. “I have been waiting for a shift for many years, but until now I haven’t seen any greater improvement. As a matter of fact, I am still amazed that the paleoanthropological community doesn’t accept the theory.”