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.
Between March 23-26 I attended the 2nd International conference on Bajau/Sama’ Diaspora and maritime Southeast Asian cultures in Semporna. It was an interesting conference with skilled scholars who presented papers about long epic songs among Indonesian Bajo (iko-iko), more than 3 000 years old archaeological sites in Semporna and much more.
Presentation on Sama Dilaut Challenges
During the conference, I made a presentation about the contemporary challenges facing Sama Dilaut in both Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia and discussed possible solutions to the crisis. Sama Dilaut are facing a variety of problems, as for example indebtedness, reduced fish stocks, lack of ID:s and market distortion, and there is no easy fix. You can see my Power Point-presentation from the conference here: Sama Dilaut as Guardians of the Sea. My conference paper will be published later.
Another problem that are facing Sama Dilaut in Sabah are new regulations on use of engines. Many of the smaller engines used to be put inside the boat are now illegal and as a consequence many more Sama people are now using sails than before. The new regulaitons have been in place for little more than a year and has made search for livelihood increasingly difficult for many Sama Dilaut.
In the conference, archaeologist Dr. Stephen Chia presented findings of old pottery stoves on the archaeological site Bukit Tengkorak that is more than 3 000 years old and has more or less the same appearance as present day pottery stoves made by Sama people. This might mean that Sama people have been living in the area for millennia, or perhaps they did learn the handicraft technique of people who were already living there.
Few Sama Dilaut Attended the Conference
The conference in Semporna was truly international, with Sama people from both from Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia attending the conference. It was great to see this mixture of culture and language and that the bonds between the Sama groups in the different countries gets stronger. I also came to realize that Central Sinama (widely spoken in Philippines and Malaysia) and Indonesian Bajo are more closely related than I previously thought. I also got to know that there is a quite big Sama Simunul community in London, which I might pay a visit.
However, very few Sama Dilaut did attend the conference. Some Sama people with their roots in Sitangkai attended, but no Sama Dilaut from Zamboanga or Tawi-Tawi. And no one who actually lives on the houseboats today in Semporna was there – and they knew nothing about it.
The conference also attracted other Sama speaking western people from the Philippines, as for example Luke Schroeder, who runs the website sinama.org. It was the first time that so many “Melikan” (westerner) Sinama speakers gathered in Semporna to the local’s great delight.
Traditional Artefacts and Igal Festival
The conference took place in the Tun Sukaran Muesum avenue, where a lot of traditional Sama fishing equipment and musical instruments can be found, as for example different kinds of pana (spear guns) and kuling tangan (a kind of xylophone still played by the Sama). In the evenings, we joined the Igal festival where dance groups from Tawi-Tawi, Semporna, Kota Kinabalu and Manila participated. There was also a competition with two different competition classes, traditional igal and modern igal. A group from Bangaw Bangaw won in the traditional genre.
Facebook Video with more than 400 000 views
After the conference, I stayed in Semporna for almost a week, and I realised that I have become a well-known figure in the area after the release of a Facebook movie from January this year in which I speal Central Sinama – the video now has more than 400 000 views.
During these days, I visited the communities of Labuan Haji, Bangaw Bangaw and Labuan Haji where many Sama Dilaut people without legal papers reside. I also visited some of the outer islands in the region where I met with Sama peoplewho are residing in their houseboats. I was joined by the American film makers Marlena Skrobe and Alice Bungan who are making a documentary about Sama Dilaut.
Also during this trip, I visited Mabul where I talked to Sulbin, the famous diver who walks on the sea floor in BBC:s movie “Sea bed hunting on one breath”. I asked him about his eardrums and he said that he had broken them for a long time ago “abostak na talingaku”, he said. He also said that it was very painful but that it is easy to harvest the sea floor after it’s done. In Mabul, I also identified the girl who saves her boat and help tourist children in another well-known video on Youtube. The girl’s name is Sial and she still lives in a houseboat outside of Mabul.
Here comes my Photo Phook about Sama Dilaut as PDF: Sama Dilaut – People of the Sea. Over the years, I have distributed approximately 50 copies of the book, which is not for sale but given to people and organizations I meet.
At the moment, I am working on a new updated book that will touch more on Sama Dilaut’s culture and challenges as well as different fishing techniques. It will also contain my most recent photos.
After the trip to Indonesia I made a short stop in Hong Kong on the way back to Sweden, where I met web designer Albert Chak whom I met in the Human Evolution conference in London in 2013. He has a great interest in the Aquatic Ape Theory and has made two very informative posters on the matter, after carefully have studied the work of scientists in the field. In two intense days, we discussed different aspects of the theory, as for example it’s health implications and the emergence of speech. We also discussed how we can promote the theory among a larger audience.
My plan is to meet with many proponents of the theory around the world in the coming years as well as baby swimming centres and water birth institutions.
On March 23-27 the 2nd International conference on Bajau/Sama Diaspora and Maritime Southeast Asian Cultures will be held in Semporna, Malaysia. The conference will be about Sama Dilaut culture, sacred places, maritime lifestyle and migration.
I will present a paper on migration in which I discuss two possible solutions on the Sama migration crisis, derived from extensive field trips in Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. I argue that the crisis is part of an international problem facing coastal communities throughout the world, and claim that we should reclaim the concept of Sama Dilaut as guardians of the sea. Positive examples can be found in Sampela where Sama fishermen lead a traditional lifestyle within a national park and in Davao were Sama fishermen have been recruited as “Bantay Laut”, with the task of collecting plastic waste and report illegal fishing.