Re: Homo erectus (sensu stricto) the most aquatically adapted hominin?


Thanks, Gareth

Thanks, Francesca.


Would it be possible to reveal the source of this text


That would be me.  Email, subject "Second draft" about where when and how we became aquatic.

Ok, thanks. I’ll have another look for it.


 many of our “aquatic” adaptations stretch back at least as far as the early Miocene and most of the changes seem to be instigated by climatic changes.  


Agreed. But they didn't spring up, fully formed overnight. They gradually improved, gradually increased in number and range of functions.

Agreed, that’s what I’ve been writing about.


I'm not making any guesses about what happened before the Miocene --  what the climate was like in some particular region, tectonic events, sea levels, vegetation, predators or the particular 'cause' of any specific change in physiology. For one thing I'm sure that none of these conditions remained unchanged for millions of years at any point, so too much of it is guesswork based on insufficient evidence. Almost anything could have happened somewhere at some point.

The climate I refer to from Miocene onwards is all supported by scientific research.


reversal from upright bipedalism towards arborealism


Not aware of any evidence for this "reversal". Not to say it couldn't or didn't happen, but if I ever knew of any evidence, I've forgotten.

There are quite a few scientists who now support that knuckle-walking developed in Pan and Gorilla in parallel, from an already upright common ancestor, after splitting from a common ancestor. First they walked on 4 legs, then they walked on 2, then they walked on their knuckles.

Many of the australopithecines seem to become more arboreal over time, not less. Eg. Australopithecus sediba, a very late surviving hominin, was clearly smaller and more arboreal than Lucy was 3.4 Ma.


My only comments would be that, once we learned to throw, we were never able to brachiate again because of the change in orientation of our pectoral muscle.. Once we became bipedal, the loss of the divergent hallux meant we could never grasp a branch with our feet again. Not sure what kind of arborealism this would leave us. 

Humans didn’t become arboreal again, only Pan did. The point I’m trying to make is that the LCA was probably already a biped. After we split, the Pan line remained bipedal (wading, wetland foraging) for a while, but later, they returned to the forests, started climbing trees and walking on their knuckles when on the ground. There is evidence that Pan’s feet were once like ours (adducted halluces) but later their big toe moved round to the side and they could grasp branches again. (Pan foetus in utero).


 I don’t believe sapiens are the most aquatic. I think early Homo was more aquatic than we are now.


We need to look at the other features that you consider reversals to see if any of them are aquatic features that we have lost since early Homo....

I think you misunderstood me… there was only one reversal I mentioned and that was in chimps…


You mention...


6 Ma: human-like foot morphology (loss of arborealism). -- Arborealism is definitely not aquatic.

That’s my point. We lost arboreal features because we became more aquatic. Or, because we became more aquatic, we lost arboreal climbing abilities.


5-2 Ma: Gradual reversal from upright bipedalism. -- Don't think I believe this (Open to persuasion. See above.) but anyway bipedalism is either not essentially aquatic, in which case it's irrelevant or it is, in which case we have become more aquatic (more upright), not less, since early Homo.

Yes, again, I think you’ve misunderstood me. Here I’m talking about Pan (chimps) not Homo. Reverse adaptations in evolution are more common even than first time adaptations. It happens all the time. It’s a result of gene expression. Once the gene exists, it can be switched on or off, according to need. That’s why snakes evolved legs, then lost them again. So did whales, etc. Chimp and human ancestors lost their fur, then chimps grew theirs again, but we didn’t. Early elephants lost their fur but woolly mammoths grew it back as they moved north. Some people are sometimes born with a tail, or webbing between their toes, because those genes still exist, even if silenced at the moment.


I think Homo is closer to the LCA in morphology than chimps. We haven’t changed as much as they have over the past 5-6 million years, and this is seen in their Y-chromosome. And most of those changes in chimps probably happened in the last million years or so, after they diverged from bonobos. Bonobos are more like us than chimps are (see picture attached).


2.0 Ma: Homo appears:  taller, larger with longer legs, increased thoracic capacity, heavier leg bones, heavier crania, larger brain (significant development of cortex associated with vision and manual dexterity), improved dexterity, platycephaly, hooded nose, thick brow ridges, improved shoulder rotation, no evidence of sexual dimorphism, more sophisticated stone tool use, shellfish consumption. -- Other than the thick brow ridges (survival benefit not obvious to me) these all seem to be increases in aquatic adaptation.

Thick brow ridges are great if you dive, browse and forage underwater. Like a hooded nose, they act together to push water away from the eyes and nostrils as you move forward.
And yes, this is meant to demonstrate increases in aquatic adaptation. My point is, early Homo at 2 Ma was far more aquatic morphologically than H. sapiens is now.


300 ka to present: Ear exostoses, larger brains, heavy bones, multiple crania fractures, larger eyes (cold-water diving?) -- Again these seem to be evidence of a more aquatic lifestyle, not less.

Yes, Neanderthals were more aquatic than Homo sapiens. Again, that’s my point.


Which aquatic features do you think we have lost, then? What makes you think we are less well adapted to warm, cold, shallow, deep, clean, muddy, fresh or salt water than any of the less derived hominins? Your entire timeline seems perfectly to support my observation that aquatic adaptations have been a gradual, punctuated, cumulative process that has continued till today.

We haven’t fully lost any of those earlier adaptations (that we know of) but each is less pronounced. We have smaller thoraxes and reduced lung capacity compared to early Homo, as we don’t dive as much. We have lighter bones because we walk/run more, swim and dive less. We can’t see well underwater unless this skill is practised from childhood. We have less pronounced brow ridges for the same reason. We have rounder crania as we spend more time standing upright, whereas the more elongated crania of early Homo is better supported in a swimming, floating or diving position. We can swim and dive pretty well, for an ape, but not as well as erectus probably did. They may have been able to swim vast distances and dive to much deeper levels. They could probably hold their breath much longer than we can, or close to what professional / record holding divers can do now.


As your mum once wrote, just because we evolved a certain feature, it doesn’t mean we will lose it once we stop needing it. We would only lose it if keeping it was detrimental to our survival. We haven’t regrown our fur because we discovered clothes and central heating as an alternative means of keeping warm (and still get to go to the beach!) If we hadn’t, only the most hairy of us would survive in a colder climate to pass on our genes, so over time, our children would get hairier and hairier. We didn’t revert to quadrupedalism because by the time we became fully terrestrial again, our legs were much longer in relation to our arms and so the proportions were all wrong. Plus, we didn’t need to. By then we were quite comfortable moving around on 2 legs and using our forelimbs for other purposes. It’s served us quite well.






From: <> on behalf of fceska_gr via <f-ceska@...>
Sent: Tuesday, April 19, 2022 12:19 PM
To: <>
Subject: Re: [AAT] Homo erectus (sensu stricto) the most aquatically adapted hominin?


Hi Gareth,


Would it be possible to reveal the source of this text, please? I’d like to read it.


I agree that climate has influenced anthropoid evolution at many stages and in different ways, although I don’t believe sapiens are the most aquatic. I think early Homo was more aquatic than we are now.


If we look at the evidence, many of our “aquatic” adaptations stretch back at least as far as the early Miocene and most of the changes seem to be instigated by climatic changes.  


[1st aquatic stage: Hominoidea]

30-25 Ma Climate: very hot, humid, subtropical forests; tectonic upheaval and rifting causing vast areas of East Africa to become flooded, creating forested islands in vast East African lakes.

25-20 Ma: orthograde body plan and modifications towards bipedal posture, suspensory adaptations of the wrist, hand, shoulders and arms, larger, wider thorax, loss of tail, etc.
20 – 14 Ma: gradual increase in size from small-bodied primates to large chimp sized apes

Some time between 25 Ma and 16 Ma: partial loss of pelage (great apes relative to macaques)

Overall increase in eccrine gland distribution (between OWMs and apes)

Probable reduction in olfactory ability


c. 18- 16 Ma Hylobatidae diverge


16-14 Ma: Climate: temperature decrease, reduced humidity & loss of biodiversity in Africa; increasing biodiversity, humid sub-tropical forests & vast bodies of water in Eurasia, land bridges between the two continents. Disappearance of most apes from Africa. Appearance of many ape species in Eurasia.

15 Ma: loss of uricase mutation and the ability to store sugars as fat



15-13 Ma: the ability to fashion stone tools

c. 15-14 Ma: Pongo diverges

14 Ma: plantigrade locomotion (quadrupedal)

12-11 Ma: loss of prognathism, robust jaws, postural bipedalism (wading)

11-9 Ma: Vallesian crisis causes the extinction of many apes (loss of forests, loss of edible fruits, spreading grasslands, seasonal food availability).

10-7 Ma: bipedal hominids roam the river valleys & great lakes of southern Europe & the Tethys-Med coasts.
Smaller, more thickly enamelled dentition – change of diet.



10-6 Ma: terrestrial bipedalism develops

c. 10-8 Ma: gorilla divergence

7 Ma: human-like P4 dental root morphology

6 Ma: human-like foot morphology (loss of arborealism)


6-5 Ma: Pan / Homo diverge

5.9 – 5.3 Ma: Mediterranean Salinity Crisis: great unidirectional migrations of fauna away from the southern Med, towards Africa.

5.3 Ma: Zanclean Megaflood cuts off land bridge between Eurasia and Africa.

Pliocene: 5.3 – 2.6 Ma. Sea-levels rise by up to 30 m. Hyper aridity in the Arabian Peninsula prevents migration of fauna eastwards.

During much of this period, the Arabian Peninsula is effectively cut off from the rest of the world.


4-3 Ma (PTERV1 virus throughout Africa, affects all African apes, but not Homo or Orangutans)


[Panini / Australopithecines]

Climate: Loss of forests and wetlands, increase of savannah and mosaic environments

5-2 Ma: Gradual reversal from upright bipedalism towards arborealism, and eventually, knucklewalking (also in Gorilla – homoplasy).


[Early Homo]

2.6 – 2.0 Ma: Pleistocene cooling, sea-level decrease, vast intercontinental shelves appear, land bridges, intertidal zones, migration routes

2.0 Ma: Homo appears: taller, larger with longer legs, increased thoracic capacity, heavier leg bones, heavier crania, larger brain (significant development of cortex associated with vision and manual dexterity), improved dexterity, platycephaly, hooded nose, thick brow ridges, improved shoulder rotation, no evidence of sexual dimorphism
More sophisticated stone tool use, shellfish consumption.


[Later Homo]

2.6 Ma – 2.0 Ka: Pleistocene cooling, sea-level decrease, fluctuating temperatures (between glacials).

Ear exostoses, larger brains, heavy bones, multiple crania fractures, larger eyes (cold-water diving?)


[Homo sapiens]

300 Ka – present: Holocene (relatively stable climate, less overall humidity)

More gracile forms (taller, thinner – like waders), rounder crania, shorter femoral necks (adaptation for running). Loss of platycephaly, heavy brow-ridges, elongated crania. Brain capacity reduction, flatter faces, smaller teeth, smaller noses, lighter bones, smaller thoracic capacity,

Suggests H. sapiens was more terrestrial than earlier Homo.


Present – future? Anthropocene: Global warming, global climate fluctuations, sea-level rise, mass extinction events…where next?




From: <> On Behalf Of Gareth Morgan
Sent: Monday, April 18, 2022 10:57 AM
Subject: Re: [AAT] Homo erectus (sensu stricto) the most aquatically adapted hominin?


Homo sapiens is, if anything, more aquatic than Homo erectus.



"As far back as 17 March 1960, Professor Sir Alister Hardy noted in The New Scientist that modern humans have many features that suggest an aquatic phase in our evolution at some time in the distant past.  

The assumption was that a group of primates became isolated on an island or some other inaccessible waterside environment and survived by becoming adapted to a semi-aquatic lifestyle in the course of that single evolutionary event. Subsequent discoveries have provided data that both support and contradict that hypothesis. 

The present investigation proposes an alternative model whereby, over millions of years, a series of emergencies, in the shape of climate fluctuations, from fertile to desert conditions and coinciding with glacial and interglacial epochs, repeatedly imposed very stringent survival pressures on every group of hominids. From the late Miocene onward, scores of such events dictated the selection criteria for gradual adaptation to an opportunistic aquatic diet in a punctuated series of evolutionary steps. 

These adaptations were cumulative, and the fossil record includes progressively more numerous examples of each new version of pre-human and human with the passage of time, progressively larger deposits of bivalve shells and other edible aquatic food species in shell middens, and more widely distributed locations for the stone tools needed to process them efficiently. 

This interpretation of the available evidence satisfies all the significant objections to Hardy’s theory and leads to the conclusion that, physiologically, we are more aquatic now than we have ever been, and the astonishing current world records for breath holding and free diving would seem to support that view."


The idea of a single, brief isolation event producing all (or any) of our aquatic adaptations was never really credible.



From: <> on behalf of algiskuliukas <algis@...>
Sent: Monday, April 18, 2022 10:07 AM
To: <>
Subject: [AAT] Homo erectus (sensu stricto) the most aquatically adapted hominin?


For those of us who are open minded enough to answer Hardy's question "Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?" with a cautious affirmative, a second question follows "If, so when was that and how much?"

Having thought about this for twenty-five years and studied human evolution (MSc from UCL with distinction and PhD in human bipedal origins from UWA) I have come to the conclusion that the answer to the second question should be "very early modern Homo sapiens ca 200,000 years ago or so"... and... "not much".

Some proponents (e.g. Marc Verhaegen and Stephen Munro) would argue that a better answer would be "Homo erectus (sensu stricto) - i.e. the Asian, rather than African forms" and "that they were predominantly bottom divers."

That's quite a difference.

So, I'd like to discuss this openly to see if I have missed something. 

Let me start the ball rolling...

Marc always cites pacheostosis (heavy bones) of H. erectus as leaving "no other possibility" than bottom diving for this hominin but were their bones really that heavy? If you look at the Nariokotome boy femur, for example, it is remarkably gracile. Where are the papers in the literature that backs up this claim?

Marc also cites their pelvic shape as being platypelloid, with long femoral necks as further evidence but, again, that's not what I see in the literature. Nariokotome boy's pelvis is remarkably narrow actually, android rather than platypelloid. In any case what his platypelloidy got to do with bottom diving? Dugongs/manatees do not share this convergence. Their pelves, appear to be on their way to becoming vestigial like cetacea.

Whether they had heavy bones or not, there is undeniable evidence of significant weight bearing in the bones of Homo erectus. The tibial plate, the oval shaped distal femoral condyles, the robust femoral head, the large acetabulae with superiorly orientated lunate surface. The robust sacral body and large lumbar vertebrae all speak of an upright, walking, terrestrial striding biped - just like us. They seem to have been predominantly striding bipeds, not divers.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Homo erectus did not swim or dive - just that they didn't do so very much, and specifically, not as much as we modern human did, or still do.

When Homo erectus reached the islands of Java and Flores some 1.8 million years ago, they could have done so without getting their feet wet as the current archipelago of Indonesia has been connected via land bridges from time to time. Of course, I have no doubt they often went swimming and diving in coastal shallows but, if they were as adept as Marc suggests (a predominantly bottom diver, remember) then it is remarkable that the narrow strait of water between Bali and Lombok across the Wallace line, just 20km wide, was never crossed by these diving hominins in 1.8 million years. If they did cross, they would have certainly populated the whole of the Australasian continent as that too was all joined by land at various times since. And yet we so no evidence of any human like species in Australia until 60,000 ago or so.

I must remind that modern humans regularly swim across such stretches of open water. The Perth - Rottnest swim is run every year and has thousands of participants. (,teams%20of%20two%20or%20four.) It is about the same distance as Bali - Lombok via Penida. And of course far greater distances have been crossed than that, such as the Channel between England and France.

Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence but, it seems to me that if we are to remain true to scientific principles we must base our ideas on evidence and here, the evidence is that Homo sapiens is, if anything, more aquatic than Homo erectus.

Algis Kuliukas
April 2022

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