Archive for the ‘Paleoanthropology’ category

Strandlopers and river apes

July 18, 2006


It is interesting that so many of the oldest sites of modern human remains is coastal, for instance; Klaasies River Mouth (Tsitsikamma Coast – South Africa), Border Cave (Indian Ocean Coast – South Africa), Omo I & II (ancient Omo River delta where it once entered Lake Turkana – Ethiopia).

The idea that humans evolved in close proximity to water has been dubbed the ‘Aquatic Ape Theory’. Even though this theory might be over-stating the case I believe it should not be ignored out of hand. The evidence of early shell middens (Klaasies River & Hoedjiespunt – 40 000-120 000 bp) associated with the earliest of humans proves that (at least some) humans lived from the bounty of the oceans and lakes. Interesting also is that the oldest evidence of human beautification is that of sea-shell beads.

One can imagine a scenario of bands of people living very much like the ‘strandlopers’ (trans. ‘beachwalkers’ – a people that have been living along the Cape coast when the first european explorers arrived in the 17th century) that getting the best of both worlds – terrestrial and aquatic.

Unfortunately coastal areas does not get preserved well through the ages. Still there is quite a bit if evidence that human had a maritime lifestyle going back for at least 10,000 years according to Professor Jon Erlandson. According to him the maritime capabilities of ancient humans have been greatly underestimated. See this article on BBC on coastal humans.

There is some interesting correlations between adaptations for an amphibious lifestyle and speaking in languages:

  • Fine control over our breathing – It might be possible that our fine breathing control could initially have evolved to allow us to dive under water rather than for vocalisation. There is indication that this fine control evolved with later homo Erectus. The practice of Pranayama whereby higher states of consciousness is achieved through breathing exercises might very well have an evolutionary dimension in the origin of religious experience.

  • The easy life – The richness of marine food sources could have implied an easing up of the ‘struggle’ for survival. Living in superabundance would free up a lot of time for making music, dancing, singing AND telling stories. Having free time to experiment with life must have been a very powerful impetus for cultural evolution. Of course marine diet is not the only explanation for a state of superabundance.

BUT there is another explanation for most of the features attributed to us being amphibious; and that is that our immature form took evolutionary precedence – neotony. The classic example of neotony is that of the Axolotl: a salamander who’s aquatic larval form became the evolutionary successfull form without the individuals ever metamorphosising into a into a terrestrial adult form. In my mind one should consider both these explanations. This kind of neotony also occurs with domesticated animals where a domestic dog is none other than a neotony of a wolf. In this sense we humans are nothing but domesticated apes. (I say this tongue-in-cheek as we probably selected for cuteness in breeding our domestic animals).