Between 8th-10th on May researchers from all over the world gathered in London, presenting new research on human evolution, health and migration – with focus on the so called waterside theory. During the conference we could hear about swimming babies, water births, free diving, indigenous diving, underwater vision, surfer’s ear, coastal migration, bipedalism, aquatic mammals and much more.
Outspoken critics to the aquatic ape theory were also present, as for example Donald Johanson and John H. Langdon. Already in the first session, Donald Johanson declared that the so called aquatic ape theory is nonsense – before he had even heard the arguments that were to be presented during the conference.
The Aquatic Ape Theory has changed since it was first publicized by Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan. Initially most proponents suggested that human ancestors spent a period of time on the coastlines after the separation from the forefather of the chimpanzee (5-7 million years ago), and then left for land. But nowadays many of the leading waterside scientists suggest that the evolution to a marine environment continued.
Marc Verhaegen – one of the organizers of the conference – presented a controversial idea that Homo Erectus likely were shallow water divers. As a matter of fact their migration out of Africa was made exclusively along coastlines or rivers, and Homo Erectus had much larger brains and skulls than their predecessors (among many marine animals big skulls are equivalent to shallow diving). According to Verhaegen, Homo Erectus were much more adapted to a marine environment than for example Lucy and her species Australopithecus Afarensis. It is now clear that our big brains and sinuses as well as our voluntarily breath control evolved during Homo Erectus time on earth – which is highly likeable due to a rich intake of marine food and much time spent in water. Probably did also physiological traits as the human diving response, neonatal swimming reflexes and diving reflex evolve over time, not only during a short period of time 5-7 million years ago.
Hence, human evolution in an aquatic environment water was not only a historic incident that took place in Africa millions of years ago, but was an ongoing process throughout evolution of human beings. Our present aquatic adaptations are not remnants from an old way of living, as initially suggested by professor Alister Hardy and Elaine Morgan, but adaptations that were crucial also in the emergence of Homo Sapiens 200 000 years ago.
However, this theory is hard to accept within the anthropological community as they strongly emphasize a mosaic environment, suggesting that human beings were living in different environments throughout human history, just as we are living today. Human beings are thought to be able to live in any kind of environment and are not considered to be environmental specialists. But we can’t ignore that Homo Sapiens during most of her time as a living species has been living in an tropical environment feeding from an marine environment. As a matter of fact, we started to live on dry open spaces, like savannahs, much later.
Several newspapers wrote about the Human Evolution Conference, partly misunderstanding and misinterpreting the waterside theory. For example, Independent asked if “did humans come from the sea instead from the trees?”
Then – what can we learn from the new perspectives in the waterside theory? We have to start to accept that human beings have evolved in the same way as all other creatures – living predominantly in one habitat occupying only a small number of niches. We have not always been environmental generalists and we are still today – physiologically and biologically – much more adapted to a life along coastlines than a life on mountains or savannahs.