Aquatic Ape Human Ancestor Theory

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. Anatomical Evidence
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... Menopause
... Nose
... Olfactory sense
... Pachyostosis
... Paranasal Sinuses
... Platycephaly
... Sexual features
... Surfer's ear
... Sweating
... Tears
... Underwater vision

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A call to scientists...

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A call to scientists and paleo-anthropologists...

In his contribution to Volume 1 of "Was Man More Aquatic in the Past - Fifty Years after Alister Hardy" (chapter 1), the late and distinguished paleo-anthropologist, Phillip Tobias, expressed a desire to see a further review of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. This is what he said:


Until recently there had been virtually no serious discussion of the AAH, but John Langdon of the University of Indianapolis made a critical analysis in 1997 [1], one of the first by someone who is not an avowed supporter of the AAH (see Chapter 15). His 1997 study examined each of a long list, 32, of features that had been proposed as aquatic traits. Of these, he concluded that 3 were “possible aquatic adaptations”, but none of these 3 is available from the fossil record. Of the 32 characters, 7 were found to be “consistent with AAH”, and 4 of these 7 may be read from the fossil record. In all, therefore, only 4 of the 32 features may be read or inferred from the fossil record. I have analysed Langdon’s critique, as well as the evidence put together by the authors mentioned above and collated and synthesized by Elaine Morgan in her books, especially The aquatic ape hypothesis [2] and The scars of evolution [3]. Evidence has been presented, and is now widely accepted, that the powerfully competing savannah hypothesis for the origins of hominin bipedalism is no longer tenable [4].

In the face of this, I believe that palaeo-anthropologists have a duty to re-examine the claims for the AAH [5, 6, 7]. The following sums up the position at present, as I understand it, and it represents my current standpoint:

(i) The AAH highlights a real problem that needs to be addressed. It requires more research, not only on the features of humans, their ancestors and their closest living ape relatives, but also on those of unequivocally aquatic mammals in order to determine what features are common, if not universal, among water-adapted animals.

(ii) I am not yet convinced that the AAH is correctly applied to all of the 32 morphological and functional traits that its proponents have proposed as ‘aquatic traits’ of the hominins, but for at least some of the enumerated characters, the hypothesis may well provide the most reasonable, or perhaps the only, explanation that has yet been proposed.

(iii) To test the hypothesis, studies should address not only the soft tissue features – their anatomy, histology, biochemistry and physiology – but also the skeleton. Only if there are water adaptations of the bones themselves, will the hypothesis be testable by the examination of relevant fossil bones.

(iv) We should be wary of telescoping too many phases and characteristics of hominin evolution under this single, over-arching hypothesis, including traits some of which made their appearance very early and some very late in phylogeny.

(v) As a research strategy, those traits should be expunged from the AAH list, for which there are alternative explanations or canonical hypotheses, if these alternative hypotheses are better supported and on testing have not been refuted.

(vi) Of the 32 items on the list compiled by Langdon [8], after the removal of those traits for which there are sounder explanations, what is left may still be found to be substantial enough to warrant more research being devoted to the remaining traits in relation to the AAH and more serious consideration being given to the AAH (see Chapter 15).

(vii) Above all, let us try to keep our thought processes open to changes of paradigms, and especially to the change, which would be necessitated if the AAH proves to be valid for some phenotypic features of modern and earlier hominins.


Each of the five ways in which water influences or might have affected human evolution – drinking, keeping cool, anthropogeographical dispersal, aquatic adaptations and aquatic foods – requires further examination and careful researching. In sum, the rôle of water, while long appreciated and emphasized by ecologists, has been sadly neglected by human evolutionists. This article is a plea for the heavy, earth-bound view of hominin evolution to be buoyed up, lightened and leavened by a far greater emphasis upon the rôle of water and waterways in hominin development, diversification and dispersal.


The following references are all taken from:

Tobias, Phillip V.,"Was Man More Aquatic in the Past - Fifty Years after Alister Hardy", Chapter 1: Revisiting Water and Hominin Evolution"

1. Langdon JH. Umbrella hypotheses and parsimony in human evolution: A critique of the aquatic ape hypothesis. J Human Evol 1997; 33: 479-94.
2. Morgan E. The aquatic ape hypothesis – The most credible theory of human evolution. London: Souvenir Press 1997.
3. Morgan E. The scars of evolution. London: Souvenir Press 1990.
4. Tobias PV. ‘Little Foot’ and the bearing of recent South African researches on the status of Australopithecus africanus. Daryll Forde Memorial Lecture, Department of Anthropology, University College London; 4 November 1995.
5. Tobias PV. Il passaggio sardo per l’umanitá tra l’Africa e l’Europa. Sardegna Medica. Supplemento al Bollettino dell’Ordine dei Medici Chirurghi e degli Odontoiatri della Provincia di Cagliari 2002; 19-23.
6. Tobias PV. The role of water in the extra-African dispersal of humanity. In: Proceedings of Meeting in honour of Phillip V. Tobias; 2000: University of Murcia, Spain 2001.
7. Tobias PV. Some aspects of the multifaceted dependence of early humanity on water. Nutr Health 2002; 16: 13-8.
8. Tobias PV. Evolution of brain size, morphological restructuring and longevity in early hominids. In: Dani SU, Hori A, Walter GF. Eds. Principles of neural aging. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 1997; pp. 153-74.

Website: F. Mansfield, 2015

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