In mid-December I assisted a film crew from Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) in the production of a documentary movie about the Bajau Laut in Semporna. During ten busy days we followed three Bajau Laut families in Bodgaya, Mabul and Bangau-Bangau, one boat living family, one family in a stilt house and one more integrated family in Semporna. In the process I got more insights about the life of the Bajau Laut – and its contradictions.
A Stroll in the Morning Fish Market
In the first day of the production we entered the busy fish market early in the morning. Next to a huge pile of shell I met a young Bajau man from Bangau-Bangau who were waiting for fishermen with catches of live fish. Every time a fisherman arrived with a fresh catch, he jumped on to the boat to see what they had caught, and after some time he bought a large grouper for 50 ringgit that he tied to a stick and kept in the water near the pile. “I will wait till afternoon and then I will sell it to Chinese tourists”, he said. “I can get around 100 ringgit for the live grouper”.
At the same time a group of fishermen brought two big dead manta rays to the shoreline. One of the fishermen cut the manta rays in half and handed over them to two young men with wheel barrows. Shortly thereafter the manta rays were put in ice and loaded upon the board of a small van. Everything happened quickly, so I guessed that the bargaining must have taken place on the boat before they hit land. I also noticed that people in the market made no or little notice of the rare manta rays. After some time, I contacted one of the fishermen who had caught the manta rays and asked him about the price. First, he seemed to regret that he had just sold the manta rays, but when he understood that I was not interested in buying them he said that he had sold them for 150 ringgit each, before he hurried away.
One young man in the market told me that red-listed sharks were sometimes also put aside in the same fashion as the manta rays. Silently they are brought to the harbour, being bought by a middleman at sea and quickly hidden inside a van ready to take off for either Tawau or Kota Kinabalau, most likely for transportation out of Borneo. Hence, there is a very efficient logistic system for high-valued sea products – all the way from traditional fishermen to end consumers in finer restaurants in cities such as Singapore and Beijing. Some local Chinese Malaysian middlemen have direct contact with Chinese fish buyers and know how to bring the products out of the country. However, it is not yet illegal to hunt manta rays and some shark species in Semporna even though the butchering of manta rays have annoyed many tourist and conservationists in the area, as mentioned in this article: Tourists appalled by slaughter of shark and manta rays.
“I Don’t Want to Sell Directly to the Tourists”
The second day in Semporna we headed to Mabul where we settled in a homestay owned by a Malaysian engineer from Kuala Lumpur. Near the homestay I could see approximately 15 anchored houseboats and many Bajau Laut men, women and children who were selling fish and coconuts to Chinese tourists near the island resorts. I jumped into the water and swam between the boats and resorts to interact with the vendors. First, the Bajau Laut first made little notice of me but when they realised that I could speak Sinama one elderly woman started to ask me for money. When I told her that I could hardly have any money in the water, she asked me for my goggles. One older Bajau Laut man got very happy and declared that I was also Bajau Laut, we were “da bangsa”, one people.
“The Chinese tourists have spoiled the market”, the owner of the resort later told me. “Before we could buy a bunch of crabs for 20 ringgit but now they cost the double”. As a matter of fact, many Bajau Laut have specialised in vending to the Chinese tourists and some of them even speak Mandarin. A coconut with straw in Mabul is now being sold for five ringgit. In islands with less tourists they are either given away or sold for only 2-3 ringgit.
The next day we went to the other side of Mabul where we met with a local family that I have known for several years. The family consists of a man from Siasi, Philippines (Sama Musu), and a traditional Bajau Laut woman whose family originally came from Tawi-Tawi. They have five children. We asked them about the history of the Bajau community in Mabul and how they first came there. The man, Noedi, said that there were no resorts on the island when he first came there and that the Bajau community have been forced to resettle a few times since the early 90’s. While we were talking, the film crew used a drone to film the spacious resorts and the cramped Bajau community which is mostly made up by Sama Musu and Bajau Laut. On the other side of the island there is also a big Tausug community. Most of the islands’ residents have no legal documents, and most of them are from the Philippines.
The following two days we followed Noedi spear gun fishing. On the second day Noedi caught a grouper that he kept alive in water, but when we asked him to sell the grouper to some tourists from his boat he refused. “I know many people here, and I will feel embarrassed if I sell it to tourists”, ha said. “I don’t want people to see me doing that”. That was an eye-opener for us. We had seen many men selling fish in the resorts and thought that all Bajau fishermen did so, but Noedi refused. As a matter of fact, Noedi preferred to sell his catch straight to a middleman even if he was likely to get less paid if he did so.
Traditional Healing Ceremony in Bodgaya
On the journey back to Semporna we were accompanied by Noedi and his family, since they wanted to meet their daughter who works in town. While we were looking for the girl, we met a Bajau Laut couple who is related to Noedi’s wife on an anchored houseboat. Quickly, we agreed on following them to Bodgaya the next day along with Noedi’s family who also have relatives there.
In Bodgaya we met up with the couples’ eight children and their in-laws. We also went net fishing nearby Bodgaya with five men on two wooden boats. Two men remained in the boats hitting the water with big sticks while the three others jumped into the water. They surrounded the fish and drove them towards the net. One man also used a speargun for catching larger fish. After some time, the fishermen pulled the nets into the boats. However, the catch was sparse and far from as opulent as some I have witnessed in Sampela where the same method is used. However, the fishing trip was just a showcase and they normally travel far from the community for fishing.
The same evening, we witnessed a traditional healing ceremony performed by a local spiritual leader, a jin, in the village. The daughter of Noedi who had followed us to Bodgaya, suffered from hair loss and was treated by the jin, her uncle. He put the Quran on her stomach and recited holy verses, after which he fell in trance for a few seconds. During these intense seconds he came in contact with the spiritual world and found the reason for her problem: use of veil and the fact that she and her parents had pledged her necklace of gold. The houseboat owner, Kirihati, then made a lively depiction of that Bajau women only use headgear when they collect shell fish under the harsh sun, not in everyday life. After that, the jin gave her a temporary necklace that she would wear until she had retrieved her golden necklace. That night, the girl didn’t use her veil but when we came back to Semporna a few days later she used her scarf again, and the old necklace were nowhere to be seen.
A few days later in Semporna, I met Kirihati and his family once again in the harbor. I noticed that all the children, including Kirihati himself, wore traditional charms that are supposed to protect them against disease and injuries. They invited me to enter the houseboat where I met an elderly man presented to me as Kirihati’s father. While we were talking he took out a pair of nice boots from a shoe box and told me that he was on the way to the mosque for prayer. The whole situation made me puzzled because none in Kirihati’s family had shown any interest of visiting the mosque. However, the old man told me that he had spent many years in the Philippines where he had married his second wife. He was now a practicing Muslim, and he even had a son who was studying in Zamboanga. He was in fact much less traditional than his son.
Police Raid in Kampung Halo and Bangau Bangau
During my last day in Semporna, there was a raid for drug dealers and drug consumers in the communities of Kampung Halo and Bangau Bangau. More than 100 people were arrested and many of them will eventually be deported to Philippines. However, most Bajau Laut I talked to were little concerned by the raids and felt safe. As a matter of fact, the Bajau Laut are less likely to be deported to the Philippines because of their status as stateless. Everyone who is arrested by the migration police will be investigated by the Immigration department, but if you can prove that you are Bajau Laut you will not be deported (unless you have taken drugs, engaged in illegal fishing, etc.). In practice, however, police will seldom bother to scrutinize the Bajau Laut – their boats, their clothes, their dialect and their appearance will be enough for determining their identity.
In this way, the Bajau Laut without identity documents are being kept traditional. This can most clearly be seen in Bangau Bangau which mainly consist of former boat living Bajau Laut from Sitangkai in the Philippines. Here, most of the residents have Malaysian identity cards today and many of them work in town. Some of them do even have their own cars and involve in long-distance fish trading. At the same time there is also a smaller percentage of the community who are not Malaysian citizens and they are much more likely to engage in traditional fishing. Some of them regularly spend days at sea in small “lepa lepa” boats.
The last family we followed in the documentary is a clear example of this. The man, Joy, used to live in a houseboat outside of Maiga during his childhood, but today he is a Malaysian citizen and own his own tourist boat. If he is lucky, he can earn more than 500 ringgit a day bringing mostly Chinese tourists to the islands. At the same time, Joy has relatives in both Bangau Bangau and Maiga who don’t have any legal papers and who face a completely different reality.
After ten days of filming and one week of meeting old friends, I finally left Semporna. The documentary is expected to be released in July in Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and on Youtube. I will share the link with you.
From mid-August to mid-September, I made a new trip to Southeast Asia. I visited several Bajau Laut communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines.
Spleen Size Among Bajau Laut in Indonesia
In the beginning of the journey, Professor Erika Schagatay and I re-visited the villages Topa and Sampela outside the coast of southeast Sulawesi. Here, we continued to collect data on lung capacity, spleen size and other physiological characteristics of importance to a livelihood based on diving. During parts of the trip we were also joined by freelance journalist Sushma Subramanian who was making a story about our work in the field.
We followed on several fishing trips, including speargun fishing and shallow water harvesting. In Sampela, many women collect shellfish, and they display great skills. They have an impressive knowledge about the sea life and can find sea shells well hidden under the sand. Many men are still making a living from speargun fishing even though fish size is reducing. However, on the last fishing trip one of the fishermen caught a large barracuda with help from his fellow fishermen.
In April this year, we were reached by the news that not only Bajau divers, but also non-diving Bajau in central Sulawesi have naturally larger spleens than people in general. A Danish-American research group have found evidence for natural selection on the gene PDE10A which regulates spleen size, as well as for the gene BDKRB2 which is linked with the so-called diving response. The data was compared to a neighbouring sedentary group, the Saluan, which on average had much smaller spleens. The study was published in the article Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving in Sea Nomads in Cell, and gave clear evidence for recent evolution for diving in the Bajau.
After the article was published, questions regarding the findings in relation to the waterside theory have been raised: does the findings support or contradict the theory of an aquatic past in human evolution? If spleen size has grown recently in Bajau, and if we hypothesise that our distant forefathers were also diving, shouldn’t our forefathers have the same mutations on these genes? One explanation can be that genes coding for spleen size and certain diving reflex functions can change quickly over time and that specific genes have changed from pro-diving positions after humanity as a whole abandoned a semi-aquatic lifestyle, and then became more prominent again in the Bajau. This idea should be possible to falsify by looking at approximately 60 000-year-old DNA samples when nearly all humans still lived in the tropical zone. However, if we look at the evolutionary bigger picture the new findings do not contradict a past semi-aquatic lifestyle in humans. We have to take into consideration that humans overall have much larger spleens that for example chimpanzees and gorillas. Hence, even if Bajau have undergone a recent evolution in spleen size, it doesn’t mean that humanity doesn’t have a prerequisite for large spleens. Also, Erika’s and mine temporary data on spleen size among Bajau clearly shows that trained Bajau divers have much larger spleens than no Bajau divers. Hence, it is still obvious that regular diving is of great importance for spleen size.
Further research on spleen size and larger genetic analysis should be carried out before relevant conclusions can be made. For example, it would be interesting to see if other Bajau groups in other parts of Indonesia have the same genetical adaptations to diving, not least since one study, The last sea nomads of the Indonesian archipelago: genomic origins and dispersal, showed that Bajau groups in Indonesia are often more closely related to neighbouring people than to other distant Bajau groups, since inter-marriages have been very common throughout the history among Indonesian Bajau. One study should also look at skilful female Bajau divers, since some Bajau women still are great divers, as for example in the village of Kabalutan in Togian, Sulawesi. It would also be interesting to take a close look at Bajau groups from for example Philippines and Malaysia, and perhaps especially those from northern Sulu and from islands and places such as Siasi, Basilan and Zamboanga. The great free diver Sulbin that walks on the seabed in a BBC:s series Human Planet was born in the island of Siasi in the Philippines.
Search for the Last Sea Nomads in Lasolo and Sombori
In Indonesia, it is still common that Bajau fishermen make longer fishing trips where they stay in their house boats for a couple of days or weeks. However, it is unclear if full time nomadic Bajau groups still exist in Indonesia. I was told by a Swiss traveller that she had encountered Bajau houseboats only two years ago in Sombori, just north of Lasolo in southeast Sulawesi which was one of the last strongholds for nomadic Bajau people.
After my trip to Sampela, I decided to explore Somobri and Lasolo more closely to see if there are any nomadic Bajau left – or at least to get the chance to talk to Bajau people who only recently left their houseboats. I went to Saponda near Kendari and from there I followed four young Bajau men on a three-day trip to Lasolo and Sombori. First, we reached Labengki kecil where we visited a small Sama community but with no recent boat dwellers. The same day we reached the community Dongkala in Sombori, where we settled in the house of the Kepala Desa, the local chief. We walked to the outskirts of the village where there were some recently built houses, and one elderly woman told me that she had left her houseboat approximately only five years ago. However, she told me that there were no nomadic Bajau left in the region. Next day, we took a small trip around Sombori before we headed towards Lasolo, where we visited three traditional villages of former nomadic Bajau people: Pulau Meong, Toroh Gusoh and Marombo. However, they told me that there were no boat living people left and that many of the older “Bajau Soppe” had passed away. In Marombo, I met a healthy elderly man and I asked him if he still knew how to construct the traditional houseboats, and he told me that he and his brother in Toroh Gusoh still knew how to build them. However, it seems as that are no longer any nomadic Bajau left in this part of Sulawesi.
Pre-study for Documentary Movie
After my trip to Indonesia, I headed to Semporna, Malaysia, where I met a documentary director from Hongkong who will make a documentary on the Bajau. During some intense days we visited the islands Bodgaya, Maiga, Denawan, Omadal and Mabul where we interviewed nomadic and sedentary Bajau Laut. We asked questions such as: do you prefer to live in a houseboat over a house? Do you want your children to go to school? Do you have national identity card? Do you recognize yourself as Malay? The documentary will focus on statelessness and how it affects them, and their day-to-day life.
In the interviews, it was clear that most people in houseboats prefer to stay in the houseboat arguing that It is much easier to make a living from the boat than from the house. As a matter of fact, those who live in houseboats are often better off than those living in stilt houses. A houseboat is also much more expensive than a house. Many boat dwellers told us that they get land sick if they stay in a house; they are used of the never-ending flow of water under beneath them. They also told us that they are not interested in sending their kids to school, partly because they think that their children would get land sick but also because of that education is not for them. They rather learn from the sea than from the class room. Even many house-dwelling Bajau Laut said that they would prefer to live in a house boat if they could afford it, while others said that they now prefer to live in houses because they have become used to it. When we asked about their background, more or less all houseboat-dwelling Bajau Laut answered that they originally came from Tawi-Tawi. Many said that their forefathers came from the communities of Sanga Sanga and Tungbankao. However, in my last days in Semporna I also came across fully nomadic Bajau Laut just outside the community of Bangau Bangau who trace their roots to Sitangkai in southwestern Philippines. They were staying in smaller lepa lepa boats, while many Sama Dilaut Tawi-Tawi today live in bigger houseboats. They told me about their animistic rituals and beliefs, and that they once a year use to travel to Sitangkai on their houseboat to participate in the annual magpai baha’u ritual in which spiritual leaders (jinns) dance in trance to connect with the spirits.
The community of Bangau Bangau which is largely made up by Bajau Laut from Sitangkai is very diverse. Here, some of the residents have their own cars and work in the town, while others still make week long fishing trips on traditional boats. A majority of its residents have national identity cards, unlike the Bajau Laut from Tawi-Tawi. Almost no houseboat dwelling Bajau Laut consider themselves as Muslims. However, a majority of the Bajau Laut in Bangau Bangau consider themselves Muslims even though they still hold on to many traditional beliefs. For them the “Sama religion” is a syncretism of animism and Islam, but for most Bajau Laut from Tawi-Tawi it is simply “Sama”.
In total, there are more than 100 houseboats in the waters of Semporna. On Maiga, I could also see some new, big houseboats being built. Probably, the nomadic lifestyle will not come to an end in the coming years. Declining fish populations is of course a great threat to the livelihood of Bajau Laut as a whole, but those living in houseboats are more likely to be better off than those living in houses.
Recent Migration of Sama Dilaut from Philippines to Malaysia
In recent years, many Sama Dilaut whose forefathers remained in Tawi-Tawi and other Philippine islands during the turmoil in the 70’s and 80’s have started to migrate to Semporna because of the growing economy in the area. It is foremost the increase of Chinese tourists that attracts the increasing work force. The difference between Sama Dilaut Tawi-Tawi who remained in Philippines and those who arrived in Semporna in the last century is striking. In Philippines, the nomadic lifestyle has since long been abandoned and schooling have been common. Today, they have a different world view than their relatives in Semporna. I was told that many newcomers buy live fish from more traditional Sama Dilaut fishermen and sell it to Chinese tourists. For them a life on the houseboat is far-fetched and they are more open to education.
As a matter of fact, the policy of the Malaysian government towards the Bajau Laut makes them traditional. No health care, no education, good security at sea and fear of deportation at land – all these factors contribute to keep them, or even make them more, “traditional”. Ethnicity is about expectations and negotiations; it is basically a result of the inter-relations between different people and the state. As a result, second cousins who grew up in Tawi-Tawi and Semporna might today have a different view on the Sama identity.
In Indonesia, the approach from the state has been different. The Indonesian authorities have actively engaged in creating Bajau communities and integrated them in the larger political structure. Here, many Bajau Laut are proud Indonesians, and they are more integrated and less prejudiced than their Malaysian and Philippine relatives. In Sampela, which probably is one of the most traditional Sama communities in Indonesia, one man and his wife recently made Hajj.
Traditional Goggles Still Preferred Among Skillful Divers
In the end of the trip, I re-visited the Bajau Laut community in Matina Aplaya, Davao, Philippines, where I first came in touch with the Sama. I spent a week in the community along with a Danish freelance photographer and free diver. The Bajau Laut in Davao belongs to a third group of traditionally boat living Sama people, the group from northern Sulu (Zamboanga, Basilan, Siasi and Jolo). Probably none of them are residing in houseboats today, but they are known to be great divers. This group is also the one mostly seen begging below ferries and in major Philippine cities such as Manila and Cebu. They have been displaced throughout the Philippines and also Sabah because of conflicts and a drastic decline in marine life in Sulu.
In Davao, I followed some traditional fishermen speargun fishing in the gulf of Davao. Here, the most active divers still prefer to use the traditional goggles. I have made the same observation in Sampela: the most skilled and active divers are likely to keep the traditional goggles, even though they can afford a mask. They say that they are used of wearing the small goggles and that they feel uncomfortable with a big mask. The reason can be that they don’t need to use energy to equalize the mask. Another reason can be that the so-called diving response is more easily activated when smaller goggles are used.
In Davao, I also visited a big Bajau Laut community in Isla Verde where many traidional Bajau Laut animists reside. However, only few Bajau in Davao do still rely mostly on fishing for making a living. Shoe vending and pearl vending are the most common professions in the area today.
In mid-September, after more than 40 days of travelling, I returned home to Sweden.
Recently, I released a new movie about the Bajau Laut. The short movie focuses on hunting and gathering below the water surface and was recorded in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia during my previous field trips. The Bajau Laut (or Sama Dilaut) are one of the most wide-spread indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia and have been living on the sea for more than 1 000 years.
During a visit in London in early October I was fortunate to meet 87-year-old French obstetrician Michel Odent. He is the pioneer of introducing birthing pools and he is an active promoter of the limit of use of medication during labor and delivery, as for example oxytocin, nitrous oxide and drugs.
State of Reduced Neo-Cortical Activity While Giving Birth
Michel Odent has also introduced the concept of fetus ejection reflex in humans, meaning that women in labor can give birth instantly in moments of reduced rationality. It may occur during a sudden movement, in an instant loss of rationality, by surprise; on the kitchen floor or in the taxi on the way to the hospital. The term was first coined by Niles Newton who studied the birth process of mice, and was later transferred to the context of human birth in order to explain some of the birth’s Odent attended as a practitioner. It’s a reflex present in all mammals.
The reduction of neo-cortical activity is also present before birth. “It is common that pregnant women start to forget where they have put their keys”, Odent explained, “and this is a physiological preparation for giving birth”.
The “Fetus Ejection Reflex” is not Culturally Accepted
Odent explains that the state in which fetus ejection reflex is made possible is not culturally accepted, and for that reason carefully avoided in modern medicine. Odent depicts a state in which all civility loses its presence, in which the woman in labor can start to insult her surrounding, scream nonsense and make awkward movements, but this state is also a state of easing the birth process. Few women will remember what actually happened, but they will also forget the pain of delivery itself.
Experts on breast feeding have found that young women who have delivered their babies with a genuine fetus ejection reflex – still in a state of reduced neo-cortical activity – have been picking up their babies according to the right movements, sprawled their fingers perfectly, giving the babies their breasts – without any initial learning. Hence, the state of reduced rationality is also present the hours following birth, and it seems to correlate with an instinctive birth process. “Also then the woman should be kept in solitude”, according to Odent.
The Knitting Midwife
One of the prerequisites for a genuine fetus ejection reflex is that the woman who is giving birth should be alone and not rationally appealed. Odent has introduced the concept of a knitting midwife: a woman with own experience of birth that sits in in the corner of the room deeply engaged in a monotonous activity, as for example knitting; hence, not transmitting anxiety, nor appealing to the rational mind of the woman in labour. This is far from the today’s reality in which chemicals and a constant communication by words like “drink some more water” are widely used.
Odent has also become known for his statement that the father should not be present at the time of birth, because the father often transmit anxiety.
Birth in Pre-Agricultural Societies
According to Michel Odent most pre-agricultural societies gave birth in solitude. Odent give example of some traditional people living today as for example Kung! in southern Africa and the Piraha in the Amazon (the Piraha are also known for giving birth in water in a nearby river).
The fetus ejection reflex has also by accident being filmed by the medical anthropologist Wulf Schiefenhovel in 1978 who made video recordings of the Eipos in New Guinea. In one sequence a young woman can be seen giving birth with a genuine fetus ejection reflex among the bushes, completely unaware of the camera. “This would be completely impossible in today’s medicine”, Odent said.
The way we are Born Determines Whole Societies
For Michel Odent, the birth itself is part of a bigger picture; the domination of nature itself. When we started to domesticate plants we not only started to control nature, but also the human nature. In the process of domination of earth, we transformed ourselves into a “domesticated animal”. By interfering in the human birth process we have also changed the nature of humanity.
For example, the maternal protective-aggressive instinct is universal among mammals, but in numerous human societies around the globe this is ruptured by separation from child and mother at an early stage. Ideas that the first milk made up by cholesterol is poisonous and that a woman’s nipples should be wiped with alcohol in order to avoid spread of diseases from mother to infant, are also example of cultural intervention in the birth process. According to Odent, this can help to explain the foundation of aggression in humans and domination of nature. “In order to be able to dominate nature and neighboring people, it was important to increase the level of aggression”, Odent explained.
Caesarean Section Dramatically Changes the Birth Process
Today, the rate of caesarean section is larger than 50 % in countries as Turkey and parts of China. Despite the fact that the mortality rate in caesarean is lower both for mother and child compared to vaginal birth, Odent is worried about its implications. For example, the microbes that will be transmitted through the vaginal canal to the baby at birth is crucial for the immune system. A natural birth also releases a cocktail of hormones as for example oxytocin that is developing a strong bond between mother and child. In an experiment, a gorilla delivered with caesarean section, but she didn’t bond with her baby at all after birth. More than that, a child being born with the use of caesarean section will not have any melatonin in its blood, which is an important stress release hormone.
According to Odent, there is also a correlation between how a mother was born and how her own kids will be born. There might be a possibility that epigenetics – the process in which genes can be activated and deactivated depending on the lifestyle of previous generations – also play a role in the way women give birth. If that is the case, we might be unable to give birth in the natural way (just like the bulldog, of whom over 80% of are delivered by Caesarean section today), in a few generations to come.
An Author of Numerous Book – a New Book Released just a few Weeks ago
Odent is author of books such as “Do we Need Midwives?” and “Childbirth and the future of Homo Sapiens”. For a few weeks ago, he also published the book “The Birth of Homo, the Marine Chimpanzee: When the Tool Becomes the Master”.
Odent is also regularly invited to conferences and seminars around the world, and for only a few weeks ago he was invited to Turkey by Mr’s Erdogan herself. “There is a worry about how women give birth in Turkey”, Odent said. “It’s good that people get more knowledge about the birth process and the risks that is associated with modern birth practices”.
“Ultimately this is about the domination of nature – and we have reached the limit already”, Odent concluded. But the birth process may also contain the keys to a less harmful approach to nature. Perhaps, the way we are born can change our urge do dominate and control other people – and Mother earth herself.
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.”
In a 2016 September BBC radio program titled “The Waterside Ape”, Sir David Attenbourough presents new evidence for the waterside theory that have been published in recent years. In the program, they interview free diver Sara Campell who went from a total beginner to a holder of three world records in just eight months, Erika Schagatay who have studied Japanese Ama divers and Bajau divers and compared the data with semi-aquatic mammals and Curtis W. Marean who has discovered dependence on mussels and sea-snails among Homo Sapiens at Pinnacle Point in South Africa at 164 k years ago.
Surfer’s Ear Hard Evidence for the Waterside Hypothesis
A particularly interesting evidence has been formulated by P.H Rhys-Evans and M. Cameron in their article “Surfer’s Ear (Aural Exostoses) Provides Hard Evidence of Man’s Aquatic Past” in 2014 in which they show that aural exostoses have been found not only in old Homo Sapiens fossils but also in Homo Erectus and Homo Neanderthalensis fossils. Surfer’s ear is a bone growth in the ear canal that protects the eardrum from pressure, which is proportional to the time spent in cold water. The bone growth has been found in fossils stretching as far away as South Africa, the Mediterranean and Australia. According to Rhys-Evans this bone growth can only be explained by extensive swimming in cold water.
Critical Response in The Conversation
After the program was released, critics Alice Roberts (Professor of Public Engagement in Science, University of Birmingham) and Mark Maslin (Professor of Paleoclimatology, UCL) wrote a reply in The Conversation with the title “Sorry David Attenborough, we didn’t evolve from ‘aquatic apes’ – here’s why”. In the article, they claim that many of the adaptations that are suitable for an aquatic environment, as for example hairlessness and increased body fat can be explained by a need of cooling down and sexual selection. They also claim that many of our aquatic adaptations evolved on different occasions throughout human evolution, why water cannot be the explanation. Bipedalism, for example, emerged about 6-7 million years ago while our brain started to enlarge about 2 million years ago. They also highlight the flexibility of human behaviour, and they explain later water adaptations as for example the one mentioned in the Pinnacle Point starting at 164 000 years ago, as behavioural adaptability rather than as an inherited way of life.
But why rely on sexual selection? What is attractive in generally what is viable in terms of survival. Hence, if humans started to like hairless bodies and more fatty breasts, it was rather because these characteristics were evolutionary useful, not only that they were considered beautiful. And is it really a problem that different characteristics have evolved on different occasions? The increase of brain size in Homo Erectus is probably much linked to the emergence of deep water Rift lakes that enabled increased feeding from aquatic resources. Hence, the aquatic phase in human evolution was not something that just took place many millions ago right after we left the trees, it has been influencing our evolution till the very emergence of Homo Sapiens.
Misleading and Deep-rooted Criticism against “Pseudo-science” and lack of Fossil Evidence
Bluntly, Roberts and Maslin also criticise the theory for being “pseudo-science” as is does not make any falsifiable predictions, of course irritating many of the researchers outside the area of palaeoanthropology who respectively have found strong evidence for an aquatic past in the fields of for example human physiology, obstetrics and otorhinolaryngology. In a falsifiable experiment, it has also been shown that vernix caseosa, the white substance found coating the skin of new-born human babies is likely to be an adaptation to entering water soon after being born. Further, obviously without listening carefully to the BBC program, Roberts and Maslin also claim that there is no fossil evidence to support the waterside hypothesis even after the discovery of surfer’s ear in Homo Erectus, as well as predation and preparation of very large catfish in Turkana basin at two million years ago, and the fact that literally all well-known fossils as Lucy and Selam have been found in river sediments. Lucy was found next to fossilised crocodile and turtle eggs.
Some of the researchers who participated in the program responded to the criticism from Roberts and Maslin here: A reply to Alice Roberts and Mark Maslin: Our ancestors may indeed have evolved at the shoreline – and here is why…
The Scientific Evolutionary Story of Man is Closely Related to our Belief in Development and Constant Growth
It is sad that the Aquatic Ape/Waterside theory since long has been misunderstood and rejected without further thought. This is also being reflected in other books and magazines dealing with human evolution. Mostly, the savannah or mosaic theory are taken for granted, and forms a basis for further reasoning. This is also the case with the great selling author Yuval Noah Harari, who has written the books Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus. When he talks about our evolutionary past he always relates to the savannah, even though there no longer is any savanna theory out there. Hence, many scholars adapt to the paradigm set by the paleoanthropologists, but which is false. We also have to keep in mind that the concept of human evolution is closely connected to our belief in development and growth. The generally accepted evolutionary story of Homo Sapiens is in fact the scientific creation myth of man, and it repeatedly depicts a human ancestor who were living in a diverse mosaic environment always eager to adapt to new circumstances using an emerging intellect and creativity, and not it’s bodily functions. There is thus a red thread between myth of human evolution and today’s pursuit of constant growth.
The Waterside Theory Requires Another Story of Human Evolution
But the aquatic ape theory tells us another story: here most human characteristics can be explained in relation to a specific biotope: the waterside. However, this idea can’t be accepted by the paleo anthropologists because It implies another creation myth that does not go hand in hand with the idea of development. Hence, by strengthening the waterside theory, the proponents of the theory just make it more inappropriate in the anthropological community. That’s why they compare the theory with the mythological hydra: if you cut off one head, two new ones grow out.
The only solution to this dilemma is to accept the fact that humans during evolution were nothing special. We were not the masterpiece of creation. We were just one animal among others. We ate shellfish that we collected in low tide or by diving. We were walking, wading and swimming long distances along the shore lines. We gave birth to the children in water. And, most importantly, we were not creative engineers, who always came up with new ideas for survival. There was no need for constant invention – because their world was never changing as rapidly it does today. What was important to our ancestors was to learn the techniques of survival that were already in use. What was important to our ancestors was to learn the techniques that were already in use, ranging from tool manufacturing, motor skills and resource utilization. They also inherited a profound knowledge about edible plants and marine resources. As a matter of fact, if we look at the tools used by our human forefathers we can see that they were made in nearly identical ways over long periods of time. The stability and the conservatism in the tool making traditions as for example Oldowan stretching from 2.6 million years BP to 1.7 million years BP, Acheulean stretching from 1.76 million years BP to 100 thousand years BP and Middle Stone Age (MSA) starting around 280,000 years ago and ended around 50–25,000 years ago have been extremely conservative over hundreds of thousands of years. Where were all the innovations? And why did the early group of Homo Sapiens that made it all the way to Israel around 130 – 85 thousand years ago not out conquer the Neandertals? Why were the same caves inhabited alternately by both Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals before Homo Sapiens finally disappeared from the area?
In fact, what distinguished man throughout history was rather an extremely precise handwork, a strict repetition of long series of complex hand movements; or in other words: a repetition of already acquired technology. And not a constant flow of inventions and change.
A New Paradigm Which is not Based on the Idea of Development is Required
We must accept a new paradigm – that humans were not ingenious creators but rather extremely skilled imitators – and I am convinced that this paradigm will grow in popularity when we fully realise the destructive impact humanity and rationality have on this earth. Soon, the believe in development will not lay the foundation of the scientific creation story of man.
But then, what happened? Why did Homo Sapiens finally change and start to migrate to the most diverse environments? Yuval Noah Harari talks about a cognitive revolution that took place approximately 70 000 years ago enabling us to organize people on a larger scale in relation to a common shared world view. The revolution also led us to manufacture more advanced tools, create more diverse art and hunt on a large scale. Yuval Noah Harari argues that changes in our DNA enabled this change. Again, we can see the strong faith in the connection with human evolution and today’s growth, and the conviction that today’s humans reflects the inner core of our DNA. In other words, the paradigm assumes that we are meant to be geniuses.
But can small changes in brain make that difference? And if so, what was the purpose of our large brains that we had as early as 200 000 years ago despite not creating any visible inventions?
We Must Rethink our Brain and Language
There is, as I see it, only one possible answer to this dilemma. The creative capacity of man throughout most of our evolution was latent. It was a part of our brain and potential, but not utilized. It evolved, but as the other side of the coin. The main function of the growing brain was rather to repeat earlier invented behaviour, not to start the day by coming up with an ingenious idea about luring a big prey. We also must keep in mind that tool management and language are located in the same part of the brain and closely related to each other. Hence, the function of this part of the brain was to cement behaviour and movements, to master the art of reappearance. But when the humans had to leave their tropical environment because of climate change – as in South Africa approximately 100 000 years ago – this language lost its grip and turned creative. In other words, maybe the brain in its essence is anti-development. That, I am sure, will be the paradigm of tomorrow.
I recorded the following video during my trip to Kabalutan, Togian, Indonesia, in February this year. The octopus was caught with a speargun and lured with a fake octopus.
Bajo in Kabalutan still stick to their traditional fishing methods while the waters around them are being depleted by big commercial fishing vessels.