Aquatic Ape Human Ancestor Theory

Aquatic Ape Theory - What is it?

A Brief Summary of AAT - key arguments

A Brief History and Key Proponents of AAT

When / Where / How?

Ape to Human Evolution Timeline

Alternative theories of human evolution

Wikipedia and the scientific community

... Anatomical Evidence
... Bipedalism
... Birth and babies
... Brain
... Breath control
... Descended larynx
... Diet
... Diseases
... Fat
... Fingers, toes and feet
... Furlessness
... Hair and baldness
... Human ailments
... Kidneys
... Language & Song
... Menopause
... Nose
... Olfactory sense
... Pachyostosis
... Paranasal Sinuses
... Platycephaly
... Reverse osmosis
... Sexual features
... Sleep (USWS)
... Surfer's ear
... Sweating
... Tears
... Underwater vision
... Viruses
... Waterside environments

. Homo Ancestors
... Trachillos bipedal hominids
... Homo erectus
... Homo neanderthalensis
... Sea Gypsies/ the Moken
... Homo sapiens - water afinity
... Coastal Migration
... Pan and Gorilla ancestry
... Semi-Aquatic Animals

. Testable Hypotheses
. Fossil evidence
. Genetic evidence
. Paleoecological evidence
. Retroviral marker in apes
. Acheulean handaxes

A call to scientists...

Recent News and Updates

Books and publications


Videos links




Increase in brain size during human evolution

Humans have the largest brains of any primate in absolute terms, as well as relative to body size. Brain size varies with body size - larger bodied species tend to have larger brains, but not always. The evolutionary increase in brain size in our ancestral line, subsequent to the split between humans and chimpanzees, is well documented in the fossil record. The greatest increase happened in the genus Homo in the last 2 million years (Pleistocene) [1]. Human encephalisation is not an obvious choice for the evolution of any species. The human brain consumes a great deal of the body's energy and our ancestors would have had to have had the nutritional means to make this possible, with a reliable, all year round available food source, rich in brain specific nutrients.

Aquatic diets contain plenty of Omega 3 and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is very important for the brain growth and development, as well as essential for proper neurological functions and mental health. In his book: "Survival of the Fattest: The Key to Human Brain Evolution", Professor Stephen Cunnane notes that brain growth requires nutrients, vitamins, and minerals such as iodine, iron, copper, zinc, selenium, and the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, DHA in higher quantities to support encephalisation. Maritime food such as shellfish and crayfish are among the rare naturally occurring foods enriched with these Brain size relative to body mass nutrients which suggests that homo's enchaphilisation was triggered by arrival at the shoreline.

The largest brains in the animal kingdom are those of sperm whales, weighing about 8 kg (18 lb), an elephant's brain weighs just over 5 kg (11 lb), a bottlenose dolphin's 1.5 to 1.7 kg (3.3 to 3.7 lb), whereas a human brain is around 1.3 to 1.5 kg (2.9 to 3.3 lb). Brain size tends to vary according to body size but even when we compare the relative brain size to body mass ratio, we can see that those animals with the highest values include: the sperm whale, the blue whale, the African elephant, the dusky dolphin, the hippo, while horses and pigs come high up on the chart. They are mostly animals which can claim a current or historic relationship with water. And there is much evidence to show that the most intelligent brains in the world can be found in the sea. [2]

Prof. Stephen Cunnane explaining why Omega 3, DHA, iodine among other minerals (brain selective nutrients) found in seafood, are essential to our health and brain growth:

Key Papers on DHA and the evolution of the human brain

Survival of the fattest: the key to human brain evolution


The circumstances of human brain evolution are of central importance to accounting for human origins, yet are still poorly understood. Human evolution is usually portrayed as having occurred in a hot, dry climate in East Africa where the earliest human ancestors became bipedal and evolved tool-making skills and language while struggling to survive in a wooded or savannah environment. At least three points need to be recognised when constructing concepts of human brain evolution : (1) The human brain cannot develop normally without a reliable supply of several nutrients, notably docosahexaenoic acid, iodine and iron. (2) At term, the human fetus has about 13 % of body weight as fat, a key form of energy insurance supporting brain development that is not found in other primates. (3) The genome of humans and chimpanzees is <1 % different, so if they both evolved in essentially the same habitat, how did the human brain become so much larger, and how was its present-day nutritional vulnerability circumvented during 5-6 million years of hominid evolution ? The abundant presence of fish bones and shellfish remains in many African hominid fossil sites dating to 2 million years ago implies human ancestors commonly inhabited the shores, but this point is usually overlooked in conceptualizing how the human brain evolved. Shellfish, fish and shore-based animals and plants are the richest dietary sources of the key nutrients needed by the brain. Whether on the shores of lakes, marshes, rivers or the sea, the consumption of most shore-based foods requires no specialized skills or tools. The presence of key brain nutrients and a rich energy supply in shore-based foods would have provided the essential metabolic and nutritional support needed to gradually expand the hominid brain. Abundant availability of these foods also provided the time needed to develop and refine proto-human attributes that subsequently formed the basis of language, culture, tool making and hunting. The presence of body fat in human babies appears to be the product of a long period of sedentary, shore-based existence by the line of hominids destined to become humans, and became the unique solution to insuring a back-up fuel supply for the expanding hominid brain. Hence, survival of the fattest (babies) was the key to human brain evolution. [3]

Survival of the fattest: fat babies were the key to evolution of the large human brain.

Cunnane SC, Crawford MA.


In the past 2 million years, the hominid lineage leading to modern humans evolved significantly larger and more sophisticated brains than other primates. We propose that the modern human brain was a product of having first evolved fat babies. Hence, the fattest (infants) became, mentally, the fittest adults. Human babies have brains and body fat each contributing to 11-14% of body weight, a situation which appears to be unique amongst terrestrial animals. Body fat in human babies provides three forms of insurance for brain development that are not available to other land-based species: (1) a large fuel store in the form of fatty acids in triglycerides; (2) the fatty acid precursors to ketone bodies which are key substrates for brain lipid synthesis; and (3) a store of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly docosahexaenoic acid, needed for normal brain development. The triple combination of high fuel demands, inability to import cholesterol or saturated fatty acids, and dependence on docosahexaenoic acid puts the mammalian brain in a uniquely difficult situation compared with other organs and makes its expansion in early humans all the more remarkable. We believe that fresh- and salt-water shorelines provided a uniquely rich, abundant and accessible food supply, and the only viable environment for evolving both body fat and larger brains in human infants. [4]

Brain-specific lipids from marine, lacustrine, or terrestrial food resources: potential impact on early African Homo sapiens.

Broadhurst CL, Wang Y, Crawford MA, Cunnane SC, Parkington JE, Schmidt WF.


The polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) composition of the mammalian central nervous system is almost wholly composed of two long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA). PUFA are dietarily essential, thus normal infant/neonatal brain, intellectual growth and development cannot be accomplished if they are deficient during pregnancy and lactation. Uniquely in the human species, the fetal brain consumes 70% of the energy delivered to it by mother. DHA and AA are needed to construct placental and fetal tissues for cell membrane growth, structure and function. Contemporary evidence shows that the maternal circulation is depleted of AA and DHA during fetal growth. Sustaining normal adult human brain function also requires LC-PUFA.Homo sapiens is unlikely to have evolved a large, complex, metabolically expensive brain in an environment which did not provide abundant dietary LC-PUFA. Conversion of 18-carbon PUFA from vegetation to AA and DHA is considered quantitatively insufficient due to a combination of high rates of PUFA oxidation for energy, inefficient and rate limited enzymatic conversion and substrate recycling. The littoral marine and lacustrine food chains provide consistently greater amounts of pre-formed LC-PUFA than the terrestrial food chain. Dietary levels of DHA are 2.5-100 fold higher for equivalent weights of marine fish or shellfish vs. lean or fat terrestrial meats. Mammalian brain tissue and bird egg yolks, especially from marine birds, are the richest terrestrial sources of LC-PUFA. However, land animal adipose fats have been linked to vascular disease and mental ill-health, whereas marine lipids have been demonstrated to be protective. At South African Capesites, large shell middens and fish remains are associated with evidence for some of the earliest modern humans. Cape sites dating from 100 to 18 kya cluster within 200 km of the present coast. Evidence of early H. sapiens is also found around the Rift Valley lakes and up the Nile Corridor into the Middle East; in some cases there is an association with the use of littoral resources. Exploitation of river, estuarine, stranded and spawning fish, shellfish and sea bird nestlings and eggs by Homo could have provided essential dietary LC-PUFA for men, women, and children without requiring organized hunting/fishing, or sophisticated social behavior. It is however, predictable from the present evidence that exploitation of this food resource would have provided the advantage in multi-generational brain development which would have made possible the advent of H. sapiens. Restriction to land based foods as postulated by the savannah and other hypotheses would have led to degeneration of the brain and vascular system as happened without exception in all other land based apes and mammals as they evolved larger bodies. [5]

Rift Valley lake fish and shellfish provided brain-specific nutrition for early Homo.

Broadhurst CL, Cunnane SC, Crawford MA.


An abundant, balanced dietary intake of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids is an absolute requirement for sustaining the very rapid expansion of the hominid cerebral cortex during the last one to two million years. The brain contains 600 g lipid/kg, with a long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid profile containing approximately equal proportions of arachidonic acid and docosahexaenoic acid. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid deficiency at any stage of fetal and/or infant development can result in irreversible failure to accomplish specific components of brain growth. For the past fifteen million years, the East African Rift Valley has been a unique geological environment which contains many enormous freshwater lakes. Paleoanthropological evidence clearly indicates that hominids evolved in East Africa, and that early Homo inhabited the Rift Valley lake shores. Although earlier hominid species migrated to Eurasia, modern Homo sapiens is believed to have originated in Africa between 100 and 200 thousand years ago, and subsequently migrated throughout the world. A shift in the hominid resource base towards more high-quality foods occurred approximately two million years ago; this was accompanied by an increase in relative brain size and a shift towards modern patterns of fetal and infant development. There is evidence for both meat and fish scavenging, although sophisticated tool industries and organized hunting had not yet developed. The earliest occurrences of modern H. sapiens and sophisticated tool technology are associated with aquatic resource bases. Tropical freshwater fish and shellfish have long-chain polyunsaturated lipid ratios more similar to that of the human brain than any other food source known. Consistent consumption of lacustrine foods could have provided a means of initiating and sustaining cerebral cortex growth without an attendant increase in body mass. A modest intake of fish and shellfish (6-12% total dietary energy intake) can provide more arachidonic acid and especially more docosahexaenoic acid than most diets contain today. Hence, 'brain-specific' nutrition had and still has significant potential to affect hominid brain evolution. [6]

Evidence for the unique function of docosahexaenoic acid during the evolution of the modern hominid brain.

Crawford , Bloom M, Broadhurst CL, Schmidt WF, Cunnane SC, Galli C, Gehbremeskel K, Linseisen F, Lloyd-Smith J, Parkington J.


The African savanna ecosystem of the large mammals and primates was associated with a dramatic decline in relative brain capacity associated with little docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is required for brain structures and growth. The biochemistry implies that the expansion of the human brain required a plentiful source of preformed DHA. The richest source of DHA is the marine food chain, while the savanna environment offers very little of it. Consequently Homo sapiens could not have evolved on the savannas. Recent fossil evidence indicates that the lacustrine and marine food chain was being extensively exploited at the time cerebral expansion took place and suggests the alternative that the transition from the archaic to modern humans took place at the land/water interface. Contemporary data on tropical lakeshore dwellers reaffirm the above view with nutritional support for the vascular system, the development of which would have been a prerequisite for cerebral expansion. Both arachidonic acid and DHA would have been freely available from such habitats providing the double stimulus of preformed acyl components for the developing blood vessels and brain. The n-3 docosapentaenoic acid precursor (n-3 DPA) was the major n-3-metabolite in the savanna mammals. Despite this abundance, neither it nor the corresponding n-6 DPA was used for the photoreceptor nor the synapse. A substantial difference between DHA and other fatty acids is required to explain this high specificity. Studies on fluidity and other mechanical features of cell membranes did not reveal a difference of such magnitude between even alpha-linolenic acid and DHA sufficient to explain the exclusive use of DHA. We suggest that the evolution of the large human brain depended on a rich source of DHA from the land/water interface. We review a number of proposals for the possible influence of DHA on physical properties of the brain that are essential for its function. [7]

The early development and evolution of the human brain.

Crawford MA



The brain and nervous system is characterised by a heavy investment in lipid chemistry which accounts for up to 60% of its structural material. In the different mammalian species so far studied, only the 20 and 22 carbon chain length polyenoic fatty acids were present and the balance of the n-3 to n-6 fatty acids was consistently 1:1. The difference observed between species, was not in the chemistry but in the extent to which the brain is developed. This paper discusses the possibility that essential fatty acids may have played a part in it evolution.


The first phase of the planet's existence indulged in high temperature reactions in which oxygen combined with everything feasible: from silicon to make rocks to hydrogen to make water. Once the planet's temperature dropped to a point at which water could condense on the surface allowing chemical reactions to take place in it. The atmosphere was at that time devoid of oxygen so life evolved in a reducing atmosphere. Oxygen was liberated by photolysis of water and as a by-product of the blue-green algae through photosynthesis. When the point was reached at which oxidative metabolism became thermodynamically possible, animal life evolved with all the principle phyla establishing themselves within a relatively short space of geological time. (Bernal 1973). DHA and nerve cell membranes DHA AND NERVE CELL MEMBRANES: From the chemistry of contemporary algae it is likely that animal life evolved in an n-3 rich environment although not exclusively so as smaller amounts of n-6 fatty acids would have been present. A key feature of the first animals was the evolution of the photoreceptor: in examples of marine, amphibian and modern mammalian species, it has been found to use docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) as the principle membrane fatty acid in the phosphoglycerides. It is likely that the first animals did so as well. Coincidentally, the synaptic membranes involved in signal transduction also use high proportions of n-3 fatty acids. However, the n-6 fatty acids also find a place, in the inositol phosphoglyceride (IPG) which appears to be involved with calcium ion transport and hence signal activation and reception. Even in the photoreceptor, the IPG is an arachidonic acid rich phosphoglyceride.


The dominance of n-3 fatty acids in the food chain, persisted until the end of the Cretaceous period when the flowering plants followed on the disappearance of the giant cycads and ferns. A new set of species, the mammals, then evolved with a requirement for n-6 fatty acids for reproduction. This dependance was coincident with the flowering plants which for the first time produced protected seeds: these introduced a rich source of n-6 fatty acids. The brain size of the mammals tended to be relatively larger (that is in relation to body size) by comparison with the previous reptilian or egg laying systems. This process led to the large human brain. A crucial difference between man and other animals, is undoubtedly the extent to which the brain and its peripheral attributes have been developed. This paper will address the possibility that the potential for the evolution of the large human brain may have been released by the evolving human primate occupying an ecological niche which offered a rich source of those nutrients specifically required for the brain. That niche is at the land/water interface. [8]

The role of docosahexaenoic and the marine food web as determinants of evolution and hominid brain development: the challenge for human sustainability.

Crawford MA1, Broadhurst CL.


Life originated on this planet about 3 billion years ago. For the first 2.5 billion years of life there was ample opportunity for DNA modification. Yet there is no evidence of significant change in life forms during that time. It was not until about 600 million years ago, when the oxygen tension rose to a point where air-breathing life forms became thermodynamically possible, that a major change can be abruptly seen in the fossil record. The sudden appearance of the 32 phyla in the Cambrian fossil record was also associated with the appearance of intracellular detail not seen in previous life forms. That detail was provided by cell membranes made with lipids (membrane fats) as structural essentials. Lipids thus played a major, as yet unrecognised, role as determinants in evolution. The compartmentalisation of intracellular, specialist functions as in the nucleus, mitochondria, reticulo-endothelial system and plasma membrane led to cellular specialisation and then speciation. Thus, not only oxygen but also the marine lipids were drivers in the Cambrian explosion. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (all-cis-docosa-4,7,10,13,16,19-hexaenoic acid, C22:6ω3 or C22:6, n-3, DHA) is a major feature of marine lipids. It requires six oxygen atoms to insert its six double bonds, so it would not have been abundant before oxidative metabolism became plentiful. DHA provided the membrane backbone for the emergence of new photoreceptors that converted photons into electricity, laying the foundation for the evolution of other signalling systems, the nervous system and the brain. Hence, the ω3 DHA from the marine food web must have played a critical role in human evolution. There is also clear evidence from molecular biology that DHA is a determinant of neuronal migration, neurogenesis and the expression of several genes involved in brain growth and function. That same process was essential to the ultimate cerebral expansion in human evolution. There is now incontrovertible support of this hypothesis from fossil evidence of human evolution taking advantage of the marine food web. Lipids are still modifying the present evolutionary phase of our species; their signature is evident in the changing panorama of non-communicable diseases. The most worrying change in disease pattern is the sharp rise in brain disorders, which, in the European Union, has overtaken the cost of all other burdens of ill health at €386 billion for the 25 member states at 2004 prices. In 2007, the UK cost was estimated at £77 billion and confirmed in 2010 at £105 billion - greater than heart disease and cancer combined. The rise in mental ill health is now being globalised. The solution to the rising vascular disorders in the last century and now brain disorders in this century lies in a radical reappraisal of the food system, which last century was focussed on protein and calories, with little attention paid to the requirements of the brain - the very organ that was the determinant of human evolution. With the marine fish catch having plateaued 20 years ago and its sustainability now under threat, a critical aspect of this revision is the development of marine agriculture from estuarine, coastal and oceanic resources. Such action is likely to play a key role in future health and intelligence. [9]

Docosahexaenoic acid in neural signaling systems.

Crawford MA


Docosahexaenoic acid has been conserved in neural signalling systems in the cephalopods, fish, amphibian, reptiles, birds, mammals, primates and humans. This extreme conservation, despite wide genomic changes over 500 million years, testifies to a uniqueness of this molecule in the brain. The brain selectively incorporates docosahexaenoic acid and its rate of incorporation into the developing brain has been shown to be greater than ten times more efficient than its synthesis from the omega 3 fatty acids of land plant origin. Data has now been published demonstrating a significant influence of dietary omega 3 fatty acids on neural gene expression. As docosahexaenoic acid is the only omega 3 fatty acid in the brain, it is likely that it is the ligand involved. The selective uptake, requirement for function and stimulation of gene expression would have conferred an advantage to a primate which separated from the chimpanzees in the forests and woodlands and sought a different ecological niche. In view of the paucity of docosahexaenoic acid in the land food chain it is likely that the advantage would have been gained from a lacustrine or marine coastal habitat with access to food rich in docosahexaenoic acid and the accessory micronutrients, such as iodine, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium, of importance in brain development and protection against peroxidation. Land agricultural development has, in recent time, come to dominate the human food chain. The decline in use and availability of aquatic resources is not considered important by Langdon (2006) as he considers the resource was not needed for human evolution and can be replaced from the terrestrial food chain. This notion is not supported by the biochemistry nor the molecular biology. He misses the point that the shoreline hypothesis is not just dependent on docosahexaenoic acid but also on the other accessory nutrients specifically required by the brain. Moreover he neglects the basic principle of Darwinian evolution. The well documented greater efficiency of preformed docosahexaenoic acid for brain incorporation during development would have conferred a distinct survival advantage over those without it. All terrestrial mammals lost brain capacity in relation to advancing increase in body size. The rise in mental ill health and brain disorders, to replace all other costs in the European list of burdens of ill health, (Andlin Sobocki et al., 2005) raises interesting questions as to its association with the reduced availability and consumption of marine and fresh water products. The threat posed by the continued rise in brain disorders also raises questions of importance to present and future food and agricultural policies. [10]

Roles of unsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3 fatty acids) in the brain at various ages and during ageing.

Bourre JM


Among various organs, in the brain, the fatty acids most extensively studied are omega-3 fatty acids. Alpha-linolenic acid (18:3omega3) deficiency alters the structure and function of membranes and induces minor cerebral dysfunctions, as demonstrated in animal models and subsequently in human infants. Even though the brain is materially an organ like any other, that is to say elaborated from substances present in the diet (sometimes exclusively), for long it was not accepted that food can have an influence on brain structure, and thus on its function. Lipids, and especially omega-3 fatty acids, provided the first coherent experimental demonstration of the effect of diet (nutrients) on the structure and function of the brain. In fact the brain, after adipose tissue, is the organ richest in lipids, whose only role is to participate in membrane structure. First it was shown that the differentiation and functioning of cultured brain cells requires not only alpha-linolenic acid (the major component of the omega-3, omega3 family), but also the very long omega-3 and omega-6 carbon chains (1). It was then demonstrated that alpha-linolenic acid deficiency alters the course of brain development, perturbs the composition and physicochemical properties of brain cell membranes, neurones, oligodendrocytes, and astrocytes (2). This leads to physicochemical modifications, induces biochemical and physiological perturbations, and results in neurosensory and behavioural upset (3). Consequently, the nature of polyunsaturated fatty acids (in particular omega-3) present in formula milks for infants (premature and term) conditions the visual and cerebral abilities, including intellectual. Moreover, dietary omega-3 fatty acids are certainly involved in the prevention of some aspects of cardiovascular disease (including at the level of cerebral vascularization), and in some neuropsychiatric disorders, particularly depression, as well as in dementia, notably Alzheimer's disease. Recent results have shown that dietary alpha-linolenic acid deficiency induces more marked abnormalities in certain cerebral structures than in others, as the frontal cortex and pituitary gland are more severely affected. These selective lesions are accompanied by behavioural disorders more particularly affecting certain tests (habituation, adaptation to new situations). Biochemical and behavioural abnormalities are partially reversed by a dietary phospholipid supplement, especially omega-3-rich egg yolk extracts or pig brain. A dose-effect study showed that animal phospholipids are more effective than plant phospholipids to reverse the consequences of alpha-linolenic acid deficiency, partly because they provide very long preformed chains. Alpha-linolenic acid deficiency decreases the perception of pleasure, by slightly altering the efficacy of sensory organs and by affecting certain cerebral structures. Age-related impairment of hearing, vision and smell is due to both decreased efficacy of the parts of the brain concerned and disorders of sensory receptors, particularly of the inner ear or retina. For example, a given level of perception of a sweet taste requires a larger quantity of sugar in subjects with alpha-linolenic acid deficiency. In view of occidental eating habits, as omega-6 fatty acid deficiency has never been observed, its impact on the brain has not been studied. In contrast, omega-9 fatty acid deficiency, specifically oleic acid deficiency, induces a reduction of this fatty acid in many tissues, except the brain (but the sciatic nerve is affected). This fatty acid is therefore not synthesized in sufficient quantities, at least during pregnancy-lactation, implying a need for dietary intake. It must be remembered that organization of the neurons is almost complete several weeks before birth, and that these neurons remain for the subject's life time. Consequently, any disturbance of these neurons, an alteration of their connections, and impaired turnover of their constituents at any stage of life, will tend to accelerate ageing. The enzymatic activities of sytivities of synthesis of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids from linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids are very limited in the brain: this organ therefore depends on an exogenous supply. Consequently, fatty acids that are essential for the brain are arachidonic acid and cervonic acid, derived from the diet, unless they are synthesized by the liver from linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid. The age-related reduction of hepatic desaturase activities (which participate in the synthesis of long chains, together with elongases) can impair turnover of cerebral membranes. In many structures, especially in the frontal cortex, a reduction of cervonic and arachidonic acids is observed during ageing, predominantly associated with a reduction of phosphatidylethanolamines (mainly in the form of plasmalogens). Peroxisomal oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids decreases in the brain during ageing, participating in decreased turnover of membrane fatty acids, which are also less effectively protected against peroxidation by free radicals. [11]

Website: F. Mansfield, 2015

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