There is a good chance that you know where your recent ancestors are from. Perhaps they lived where you are now, or maybe they were from another part of the world. If you are in doubt, low-cost genetic tests today can shed light on your immediate ancestral history.
But do you know where, and how, your ancestors lived in the more distant past – say, 5 million years ago? Through the archeological record, we understand that all modern people share a common set of ancestors – humans and pre-humans who lived exclusively in Africa until roughly 100,000 years ago.
This bit of science answers the where part of our ancient natural history (though in simple terms, since it omits later interbreeding with Asiatic Homo erectus people by some of our Homo sapiens ancestors as we left Africa).
Similarly, the how part of the lives of our distant ancestors is nearly as settled science. But there is an interesting controversy about our earlier life patterns that is instructive about scientific understanding and everyday knowing more generally.
In practice, examining this and other controversies, or questions about the quality of our understanding, can help us to better navigate a variety of modern challenges and uncertainties, and ultimately to think and act more optimally amid contemporary life.
As you may know, today’s scientific consensus is that, 5 million years ago, pre-humans of this time had descended from trees and begun to move out from forest cover in small foraging or hunter-gatherer bands, ones who would gradually come to dominate the increasingly dry and deforested savannas of Africa.
However there is an alternative view or hypothesis, touched on in the Our Past section of HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program. This hypothesis proposes that we were aquatic apes for a time in this larger evolutionary transition. Though our distant ancestors clearly began as tree-dwellers and ended as land-dwellers, the aquatic ape hypothesis asserts that this transition might have been marked or interrupted for a time by an aquatic mode of pre-human life – with our ancestors spending many hours each day swimming and fishing in coastal waters.
The graphic above summarizes key features of the aquatic ape hypothesis, which in its essence emphasizes that a number of our distinctly human physical characteristics might be explained by an extended period of semi-aquatic life during our evolution (including our tight skin and ability to swim proficiently).