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The Aquatic Ape: A very personal view

M y first contact with the Aquatic Ape Theory coincided somewhat with the birth and first years of my son. ( No, that is not him in the picture. That's someone else. ) As is customary in that time, I sometimes took him to the zoo, just for fun, and we had a nice look at all the animals. Some things there made me wonder. . .

Once, - I forget when or where it was - there where some baby chimps and orangutans around and I was able to take one of them by the hand. It had the strong, hard grip of a grown human, totally different from the firm, but soft one of my own child.

On another occasion, in a very rickety, run-down private zoo, I was holding him up to look at the lions - possibly ill-fed lions - and one of them looked at us, tensed, ( what muscles! ) and gave out a short, menacing roar. My heart sank and I turned away, quickly, hiding my boy out of it's sight. What if it would come over the fence? *

I had realized I was showing him food! We are food for these creatures! Soft, fat, tasty and so very easy to catch!

* ( If I remember rightly, some time later - in the middle of winter - that zoo's hippo did break out, disappeared, and turned up in someone's front garden one morning after a few days; hungry and cold, but alive. So much for safety. )

A lthough I really didn't need much prompting after that, just by looking at the other primates and comparing them with humans, I really wondered how those creatures, themselves and with offspring so lean, strong, quick, quiet and tough, could, in a similarly harsh environment, evolve into these with some so podgy, weak, soft, slow, vulnerable - and so loud! I had read already of mothers in wartime flight having to smother their babies lest their cries would attract the enemy. Children crying in the dark, with big cats lurking around in the stillness of the night, in the middle of the savanna, on even ground - that seemed like evolutionary suicide to me. The lions or whatever predators there were would be upon them before they knew what was happening! And all of this before the invention of fire, proper tools or effective weapons! Maybe an easy explanation isn't always right, but what seemed to me to be a very logical environment for something like US to evolve was somewhere equally noisy and soft - i. e. the seaside. There, you have to shout to make yourself heard above the din. It seems to me hat the creatures on the seashore ( what about the rivers, lakes and swamps? ) - in general tend to be more noisy than the ones in the savanna - especially those preyed upon!

Maybe, indeed, we should be looking at birds ( though maybe not exclusively at shrieking sea birds ) for traces of convergent evolution - and to discover the fact that to develop intelligence, individual recognition, pair bonding, flocking, three - dimensional orientation, a good eyesight, acoustic communication, a good memory and the ability to learn, you don't need a very big brain.

A nd what about our running around on two legs, of which we are so proud? Unlike the wild boar, we prefer to run in open spaces, not through hard, dense, thorny bush and sharp-bladed grass, especially when we have to do so stark naked. And even then we are not very fast, compared with what we might be running away from. And again, who would be doing the running, and where? Beneath the trees in a forest will do as a track, but so will the side of a body of water. Of course, you may find favorable places to do that in the savanna too, but what would you find to eat there? Again, without proper tools and weapons? Vegetables? Fruit? Dead meat? Has anyone ever tried chewing on a dead cow - except maybe Rüdiger Nehberg ? And would that logically lead to the steadily diminishing strength of our hands, jaws and teeth? Our ancestors were not really very big to begin with!

H as anyone, on the other hand, ever watched small macaque monkeys run around the seashore on their two hind legs, catching and washing clams and crabs, before cracking them and eating them? ( Or, on the subject of neotony - lemurs hopping over the forest floors of Madagascar on their long, strong hind legs and singing - not howling - in duet? ) I have, at least in documentaries. According to some scientists, the foundations of human intelligence could have been laid during the lemur time in the treetops: a three - dimensional world in which eyesight and judgement are more important than a sense of smell.

And, funnily enough, we are still notoriously able and willing to digest raw sea food - almost everywhere in the world. More than that: coastal dwellers around the world, from the Arctic to New Zealand, living on principally on sea food, are often exempt from ailments due to civilisation, until modern life, especially modern nourishment, hits them. In fact, many of the oldest and most healthy inhabitants on earth are found in their midst.


B y the way, according to Don Hinrichsen, my strangely near namesake, but no relation, and others, most of the world population still live in coastal areas - which ever way you define them -, which represent only 10 to 15 per cent of the earth's land surface ( and, one might add, many of the rest live along the banks of rivers and lakes - all of which sport high real estate prices ). This trend has not diminished through industrialisation, but can be witnessed by looking at satellite maps of the world at night in which the coastal outlines are clearly etched into the black void by the fires of civilisation, which seem to mass along the coastlines of the continents.


I t is not only the power of speech, however, of uttering highly differentiated sounds, which separates us from the apes. Humans are also very musical ( although some, like me, me be not )  - which means they are able to discern very subtle differences in whatever they receive as audible information.

We are also one of the species that can tell best what exact direction this sound is coming from - beaten only, as it seems, by some crickets.

A ll of this could at least have developed by the seaside - a place of constant noise and hullabaloo, as anyone will know; this goes for the background noise of the surf as well as for other animals, such as gulls, seals, whatever. The seaside is a place where you have to make yourself heard. And these are sounds we revel in. At a municipal swimming pool, where there is no background surf noise, there is always a constant, high - pitched din of shrieking children and calling and yelling grown-ups, which usually indicates that they are all having a good time.

The savannah, on the other hand, is still. Hunters stalk in silence, and the prey tries not to be noticed by being as quiet as possible. In the savannah, almost any sound ist sudden and means death and danger. A lion's roar, an elephant's trumpet, those are sounds that frighten us, and rightly so. Here, a shriek means something else. The savannah is hostile.

There is one other place where it is safe to be noisy, and that is the forest. But only in the treetops, away from the ground. The animals there are quiet as well.

N ow, in some ways, we do not resemble the other apes very much; but in these specific traits we do sometimes resemble another species which has died out on the African continent but has survived - until now, at least - on that Noah's arc which drifted away when the sea came in, the Island of Madagascar.

And from where did it drift off? From exactly the same spot where the first pre - hominids evolved, the south-eastern coast of Africa. This was once one piece of land. And it was not that long ago, 20 million years maybe. One part drifts off, the Lemurs stay on, with no savannah animals of prey to beset them; islands in general seem to be to small for these. On the remaining mainland, they slowly die out, and humans evolve where they once were.

This ist strange. We are no better equipped than they were.

L emurs? Yes, lemurs. Monkeys with tails, yes, but with open, flat faces, big eyes, fine hands, strong hind legs. In fact, they even slightly resembling what we now call "Aliens".

And very musical. Anyone who has seem the Big Lemurs of Madagascar hopping around upright on their two hind legs and hoot melodiously in unison cannot help but wonder.

They are not that far away.

A nd now, just to show you how far this idea of an island as the birthplace of mankind can be stretched, if you just let loose the reigns on your imagination, here are more excerpts from my letters to  Elaine Morgan 1982 ( edited ).

Of course, you could say I'd gone completely off my rocker! But I still think it's not wrong. ]

Dear Elaine,

Did you get my card ? Thanks again for the Copy of "Aquatic Ape". I read it with great pleasure, but what really drove me out of my chair and sent me pacing around my own my room with excitement was the chapter "Danakil Island". I know it sounds unbelievable, but I had come to similar conclusions in a more vague manner in 1978, long before I had even read "Descent".

You see, we were then in the habit visiting an old sand pit which had filled up with water during the summertime. It was a half-secret hangout for nudists and remained so until we were finally chased off one day. The place in itself was fascinating. Photos still hang on my wall.

One day, watching all these naked people, grown-ups and children, lying around on the sand, sliding down the dunes into the water, splashing and swimming and having fun, I, breathing in the strange tranquillity of this scene, suddenly had the vision that this was, or had to be, the original human state of being and natural surroundings: sand and water. This was exactly the right place for a naked human being to be, except for the weather, which was too cold most of the year round; so I mentally transported the scene into a hotter region and suddenly remembered. I remembered that I had seen this kind of place before: on the shores of the Red Sea. I recalled myself, many years ago, leaning on the railings of the ship that had taken us through the straits of Bab el-Mandeb near Djibouti, past what I know now to be the Danakil Horst, and felt again the fascination I had felt at the sight of the barren white and red mountain slopes and cliffs descending into the deep blue waters. From that moment on I knew I was on the right track to solve a mystery of which I did not yet know what it was.

Years later, I happened to see a film about South American Indian natives, and in it a scene of women sitting in a lake breast-feeding their children. Again, something in me was set humming in resonance instantly. I felt instinctively that this was right, just as the dissonance I had felt watching films about African natives weaving their way through the dense Congo jungle told me that this was not right; it did not seem natural at all and it was the women who seemed most out of place. I found it strange that Nubians living in the deserts of Sudan - a most difficult environment - seemed to be more in the right place to me, but it was "Descent" that finally showed me the full picture. In "Descent" the pattern was laid out. My first reaction was stark disbelief, but an hour later I knew you had to be right.

| Of course, this is just an opinion of mine.

I could be wrong.

But here are some speculative bits and pieces that would fit the picture.

     >     And, for all you people out there: If there still is any doubt about it by now, I am looking at this through the eyes of a male, heterosexual and by now middle-aged ( and, if that has any significance, white - or caucasian, if you like - ) West-European. German even! Vell!     <     

And here they are: ]

A. Biology, myth and symbolism surrounding the ocean environment

B. Danakil Island - revisited


Some later added ideas...

C. Waving and signalling: The human semaphore

Long-Range Communication


" Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to... "

   ( The 'Shangri - Las' / Past, Present, And Future )

I 'd like to draw attention to the fact that humans seem to have a singular trait in their body language as well. There are some gestures that are universally understood throughout the world; they require no other understanding except that they may be faked. These are gesture of the hands and shoulders in relation to the head ( usually, but not necessarily, meaning the face ) and the upright torso of a human being.

They are:


S ome of these gestures can, with some difficulty, be traced to primate origin. Their hands, however, except perhaps in the breast-beating of the alpha male gorilla, play little role in group communication, except for acts like offering food, grooming, or hugs - and, of course, fighting.

However, the latter require close body contact, while many of the human gestures mentioned above uniquely work over a distance too great to discern even facial expressions. In fact, in really open spaces, such as cliff-seamed seashores, or, indeed, open water, some work over quite extreme distances, even for the more myopic members of the society. Furthermore, they are more rigid in their meaning, interculturally and internationally, than any facial expression - or lack of such - will be. In fact, seafarers of all nations communicated in a similar manner over the centuries.

These gestures are completely instinctive and will be shown - and understood - by any grown-up ( !! ) human being when evoked, indifferent of culture and heritage, in moments of emotion such as fear, apprehension and joy. And, in a way, they convey abstract meaning.

They furthermore require no relay of sound, and so work in absolute stillness, as well as in the greatest of din, and without the use or understanding of language. And all of these gestures work with the signaller standing or sitting upright while waist-deep in water.

There may be some more examples, such as clasping your face in your hands ( including the eyes: shame; excluding the eyes: horror ) or waving you hand in front of your face ( disgust ). But these begin to be rather intimate, close-quarter gestures and are more easily corrupted by fashion.

T here is one gesture in this context which, although usually too slight to work over a greater distance, fulfils all these requirements and moreover seems to me to be uniquely human: It is the shoulder shrug, signalling: I don't know. What can I say?

This implies a consciousness of knowledge on both sides and is almost always in response to speech at close quarters. While a raised hand may have some effect on another animal, a shrug of the shoulders will not, as little as will its related gesture, the open-palmed shoulder shrug in front of the torso, signalling ( again depending on the context ): It came apart in my hands. Or: I have lost it. Or: That was a close call.


A nd would the gaze of an ape follow a pointing finger? [ POINTING FINGER ][ To APE & MAN ]

| As follows my translation of the 'GEO' article on the Afar Triangle and the Danakil Horst:

GEO 10 / 82, S. 40 / 41 ( author: UWE GEORGE  )

". . . At the end of his expedition Tazieff recapitulated that the present absence of the sea in the Afar Triangle was just a transitory phase in the development of this young ocean. That the Afar Triangle currently lies dry probably results from a turn of the so-called Danakil Block. This block is a continental fragment, a "microplate", which was left behind half-way when the Arabian Plate drifted off. It lies across the Afar Triangle like a dam 550 kilometers long, an average of 70 kilometers wide and up to 200 meters high, it cuts off the ocean floor from the Red Sea and the Golf of Aden. . .

Presumably, it is still hinged to the Arabian Plate at its southern tip, around which it rotates. Obviously the plate boundaries between Arabia and Africa do not run through the shallow strait of Bab el-Mandeb, but through the Golf of Tadioura and the Afar Triangle between Africa and the Danakil Block.

On the back flight over the Assal Rift to Djibouti the pilot agreed to fly onto the inaccessible Danakil Block.

The helicopter drifts up along perpendicular walls, through narrow ravines to a height of 2000 meters. Still wet with the perspiration from the heat below, I begin to shiver. We land on a small clearing in a dense rain forest. I hear birds singing, see colorful butterflies and believe I am dreaming. Confused, I walk through the mountain air, which I perceive as cold, . . . and cautiously step to the edge of a deep abyss. From the edge of a continental plate I look down directly onto the floor of an ocean: the Assal Rift 2000 meters below.

The only three square kilometers of rain forest exist only because of the thick clouds which often hang over the high south end of the Danakil Block. Only recently have French botanists done a first research and, as had been expected, found several animals and plants that exist only here. The ecologists guess that the Danakil Block has been isolated since at least two million years. This led to many plants and animals turning into new species after this Noah's Ark left the African continent. This little forest will surely in the next years become a kind of pilgrimage for biologists, because, like Charles Darwin on the isolated Galapagos Islands, they will be able to study the origin of new species - "

Now, doesn't that sound compelling? Just beautiful. Like wandering through old castle ruins; very exciting indeed.

The author is Uwe George, a geologist doing a lot of research on the Rift Valley, I believe, and who writes for the German 'GEO' Magazine.

He mentions earlier that the Afar Triangle is one of the hottest places on earth, with temperatures reaching 56 degrees Centigrade, a blasted desert. This disposes of Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeld's 1 ) argument of hypothermia. He also mentions that the natives bury their dead in tectonic crevices. I like the part about Noah's ark. The Bible is the white man's pendant to Indian mythology.

. . . He goes on to say:

" Seen geologically, the Danakil Block, which in every atlas belongs to Africa, is really an Island in the Red Sea. This 2300 kilometers long and at its broadest 350 kilometers wide sea is the narrow opening of an ocean just now in the process of formation. . .

Since the Red Sea, surrounded by deserts, has no fresh water supply and annually loses a layer of water over two meters thick from its surface by evaporation, it contains ten per cent more salt than the big oceans. . ."

Well, there you are.

I've heard that one of the reasons the gray whales give birth to their offspring in the bay of Baja California is that the high content of salt ( as in the red sea ) gives the infants the added buoyancy they need to come to the surface to breathe. And that marine mammals such as whales rely on squid and jellyfish in their prey for their supply of sweet water, while dolphins seem to make do with the body juices of the fish they gulp down ( but then of course, they don't sweat ). ]

| Here is the original text:

UWE GEORGE, in GEO 10 / 82, S. 40 / 41

". . . Am Ende seiner Expedition resümierte Tazieff, daß die gegenwärtige Abwesenheit von Meerwasser im Afar-Dreieck nur eine vorübergehende Phase in der Entwicklung dieses jungen Ozeans ist. Daß das Afar-Dreieck a ) gegenwärtig trockenliegt, resultiert wahrscheinlich aus einer Drehung des sogenannten Danakil-Blocks. Dieser Block ist ein kontinentales Splitter-Stück, eine "Mikroplatte", die bei der Abdrift der Arabischen Platte auf halbem Wege zurückblieb. Wie ein Deich liegt es vor dem Afar-Dreieck 550 Kilometer lang, durchschnittlich 70 Kilometer breit und bis zu 2000 Meter hoch riegelt es den Ozeanboden gegen das Rote Meer und den Golf von Aden ab. Die schmalen Verbindungen im Südosten am Assal - Rift zum Golf von Aden und im Norden über den Zugang zum Roten Meer wurden durch Hebungen des mittelozeanischen Scheitelgrabens unterbrochen. Mit dem kleinen kontinentalen Puzzlestück, das sich überaus kompliziert aus einem Über - und Nebeneinander kontinentalen und ozeanischen Gesteinsmaterials aufbaut, verbinden sich für die Geologen noch viele ungelöste Fragen. Vermutlich hängt es an seinem Südende noch mit der Arabischen Platte zusammen, und dort liegt dann auch sein Drehpunkt. Offensichtlich verläuft die Plattengrenze zwischen Arabien und Afrika nicht, wie jene Grenze auf der Landkarte, durch die flache Meerenge von Bab el-Mandeb, sondern durch den Golf von Tadioura und das Afar-Dreieck zwischen Afrika und dem Danakil-Block hindurch.

Auf dem Rückflug über das Assal-Rift nach Djibouti erklärt sich der Pilot bereit, auf den unzugänglichen Danakil-Block hinaufzufliegen. Der Hubschrauber schwebt an senkrecht abstürzenden Wänden, durch enge Schluchten zwei Kilometer empor. Noch schweißnaß von der Glut unter mir, beginne ich zu frieren. Wir landen auf einer kleinen Lichtung inmitten eines Dichten Urwalds. Ich höre Vögel singen, sehe bunte Schmetterlinge und glaube zu träumen. Verwirrt gehe ich in der Höhenluft, die ich als kalt empfinde, etwa. . . Meter durch einen bizarren Wald mit alten, knorrigen Bäumen und trete vorsichtig an den Rand eines tiefen Abgrunds. Vom Rande einer kontinentalen Platte blicke ich direkt auf den Grund eines Ozeans: auf das Assal-Rift 2000 Meter unter mir. Der nur zwei Quadratkilometer große Urwald verdankt seine Existenz den dichten Wolkenmassen, die das hohe Südende des Danakil-Blocks oft einhüllen. Erst kürzlich haben französische Botaniker und Zoologen erste Untersuchungen vorgenommen und dabei, wie zu erwarten war, mehrere Tier - und Pflanzenarten entdeckt, die nur hier vorkommen. Die Geologen schätzen, daß der Danakil-Block seit mindestens zwei Millionen Jahren isoliert ist. Das mußte dazu führen, daß viele Pflanzen - und Tierarten nach dem Ablegen dieser Arche Noah vom afrikanischen Mutterkontinent sich zu neuen Arten entwickelten. Dieser kleine Urwald wird sicherlich in den nächsten Jahren zu einer Art Wallfahrtsort für Biologen werden. Denn wie Charles Darwin, der Vater der Evolutionslehre, auf den isolierten Galapagos-Inseln im Pazifik, werden sie hier Studien über die Entstehung neuer Arten betreiben können.

Geologisch gesehen ist der Danakil-Block, der in jedem Atlas zu Afrika gehört, eine Insel im Roten Meer. Dieses 2300 Kilometer lange und an seiner breitesten Stelle 350 Kilometer weite Meer ist die schlitzartige Öffnung eines in der Gegenwart gerade entstehenden Ozeans. Aus einer Kette derartiger Schlitze bestand auch der Atlantik vor etwa 150 bis 180 Millionen Jahren, als er noch jung war und die Alte und die Neue Welt noch nahe beieinander lagen. Da das von Wüsten umschlossene Rote Meer keine Süßwasserzuflüsse hat und jährlich eine über zwei Meter dicke Wasserschicht von seiner Oberfläche verdunstet, enthält es zehn Prozent mehr Salz als die großen Ozeane. "

a ) Das Afar-Dreieck ist nach U. George ( ebenda ) heute einer der heißesten Plätze der Welt, mit Temperaturen bis zu 56 Grad, eine verbrannte Wüste.

1 ) Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeld: German Ethologist, who, when questioned by me on his view on the Idea of an Aquatic Ape, argued that humans would die of hypothermia even in a warm sea.

Links to:

My "After the Ice Age" page ( German, but containing some nice landscape pictures of the USA )

My Tectonic Page ( which would be my geology home page again )

- back -

Who is this Rüdiger Nehberg? * What does he do? - view the first instance on the first page

  Elaine Morgan, Author of "The Aquatic Ape" and other books on the subject

* for all you cineasts out there: pronounce with Russian accent as in Rambo III: "Hchoo ees thees John Rambo? ! "


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