Aquatic Ape Human Ancestor Theory

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A reply to Alice Roberts and Mark Maslin:
Our ancestors may indeed have evolved at the shoreline – and here is why...

BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast a two-part series, The Waterside Ape, which asked some straightforward questions: How long have humans and our ancestors been habitual users of aquatic and marine resources? Also, have we adapted physiologically and cognitively to a littoral environment in which we depended on those aquatic and marine resources? And finally, what evidence from the last fifteen years of research has emerged to refute or to illuminate either of these questions?

On September 16th and since, Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science and Mark Maslin, Professor of Geography, made claims in an article in an article on TheConversation.com, and reprinted by The Guardian, The Independent and Scientific American, which may have been justifiable forty years ago but which are no longer of any relevance in 2016. Specifically they claim that:

  1. there is no fossil or other evidence to support the waterside model, and
  2. the waterside model “makes no falsifiable predictions, therefore it is pseudo-science” (courtesy of Henry Gee@Nature, retweeted by Roberts).

Both of these complaints are examined directly in The Waterside Ape. We would direct Roberts and Maslin to the following research that has been published in peer-reviewed journals over the last fifteen or so years, all of which was covered in The Waterside Ape broadcast, but which they chose to ignore in their article:

  1. Human diving physiology and performance compared with semi-aquatic mammals (Schagatay 2014; Schagatay, Fahlman, 2014 – in Human Evolution).

  2. Auditory exostoses suggesting frequent swimming in both modern humans and fossil skulls going back to 500 thousand years ago in Homo erectus, and in more recent Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis (Rhys-Evans and Cameron, 2014 – in Human Evolution)

  3. Oxygen isotope data showing that early hominids at 2 - 3 million years ago were habitually in shallow water and depending on wetland sedges and papyrus (Magill et al., 2016 in PNAS)

  4. Predation and preparation of very large catfish in Turkana basin at 2 million years ago (Braun and Archer, 2014 in Journal of Human Evolution) and very large carp at the Acheulian site of Gesher Benot Ya'aqov (Alperson-Afil et al., 2009, in Science).

  5. Pachyosteosclerosis, i.e. dense and brittle bones in Homo erectus suggesting a shallow-diving habit (Verhaegen, Munro, 2011 in Journal of Comparative Human Biology)

  6. Shallow diving for Euryales ferox nuts at GBY around 800 thousand years ago (Goren-Inbar et al., 2014 in InternetArch)

  7. Wading and exploitation of large mussels both for food and tools at Trinil, in Java around 500 thousand years ago. (Joordens, Munro et al., 2015, in Nature)

  8. Dependence on mussels and sea-snails at Pinnacle Point at 164 thousand years ago (Marean et al., 2007, in Nature)

  9. Evolution of the hominid brain requiring iodine, iron, selenium, zinc and other nutrients in addition to DHA (Broadhurst et al., 2002, in Br J Nutrition)

  10. Vernix caseosa: a falsifiable hypothesis was set up, tested and proven valid that vernix is likely to be an adaptation to entering water soon after being born. (Brenna et al., 2016, submitted.)

It would be of value to your readers if Roberts and Maslin could explain in what ways the above research fails to support a waterside model of human evolution? Also, in what sense any of the above authors are practitioners of ‘pseudo-science’?

Is the message of Roberts and Maslin that the general public should be kept in ignorance of the peer-reviewed research from the last fifteen years that points to waterside habitation and adaptation at many points in human evolutionary history? We think the job of engaging the public in science is about encouraging debate and looking at the evidence, rather than attempting to dictate which discussions are scientifically acceptable. That is the job of the peer-reviewed journals.

We would strongly encourage readers to take the out-of-date assertions of Roberts and Maslin with a good tablespoonful of salt, of the iodised variety, and to read the original work we refer to, then make their own judgements.

We applaud the BBC and Sir David Attenborough for keeping up with the most recent scientific literature and presenting it to the wider public, in contrast to the addressed professors.

Signed, 

Erika Schagatay, Professor of Animal Physiology, Mid Sweden University, Sweden
Peter Rhys-Evans, Consultant Otolaryngologist, the Lister Hospital, London, UK
Kathlyn Stewart, Research Scientist,  Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Canada
Marc Verhaegen, General Physician and researcher in human evolution, Mechelen, Belgium
Mario Vaneechoutte, Professor of Medicine and Bacteriology, University of Ghent, Belgium
Naama Goren-Inbar, Professor of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Stephen Munro PhD, Curator at the National Museum of Australia.
Algis Kuliukas, PhD, Researcher at the University of Western Australia,
Stephen Cunnane, Professor of Medicine, Sherbrooke University, Canada
Tom Brenna, PhD, Professor, Cornell University, USA
Michael Crawford, Visiting Professor, Imperial College, London, UK


The Waterside Ape

Sir David Attenborough introduces the most recent evidence for an aquatic past.

Sir David Attenborough considers whether new evidence will help a once widely ridiculed theory of human origins move towards to mainstream acceptance.

Wednesday 14 September
9.00am-9.45am
BBC RADIO 4

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07v0hhm (Episode 1)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07v2ysg (Episode 2)

 


 
Website: F. Mansfield, 2015

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