Ancient Chimps or Tano Giants?

Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 12th, 2007

Tano Giant

Harry Trumbore’s sketch of the reportedly local hairy hominoid of Africa’s Gold Coast, the Tano Giant, which was seen using a cow skin as a cape to keep itself warm.

Breaking news from an international research team, led by archaeologist Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary, Canada, announces that chimpanzees may have been using stone “hammers” as long as 4,300 years ago, in the West African country, the Ivory Coast.

What if the owner of the tools too large for human hands was the Tano Giant, a huge unknown hominid known from the country today called Ghana, with the last sightings around 1911?

Côte d’Ivoire in International French, officially the République de Côte d’Ivoire, or, translated into English, the Ivory Coast, is a country in West Africa that borders Ghana to the east.

The Ivory Coast hammers were apparently used to crack nuts, and the Canadian team indicates that a “chimpanzee stone age” may have begun in ancient times. The earliest reports of stone tool use by chimpanzees in West Africa date to the writings of Portuguese explorers in the 1600s.

The scientists found that the stones were about the size of cantaloupes with patterns of wear indicating use to crack nuts. The rocks would have been too large for human hands, but about right for the larger, stronger hands of chimpanzees, the University of Calgary researchers said.

But no fossils, no subfossils, no bones were found. They are guessing about the owners of the “ancient hammers.” What if they belonged to something else that was allegedly there? What if the stones were being used by unknown hominoids that enjoyed nuts? (The nuts, we are told, are not liked by humans.)

Source for the “ancient chimpanzee theory”: Randolph E. Schmid, “Ancient Chimps May Have Used Hammers”, February 12, 2007.

Source for more on the Tano Giant: The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates (NY: Anomalist Books, 2006; pages 98-99).

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.


33 Responses to “Ancient Chimps or Tano Giants?”

  1. joppa responds:

    I have a problem with speculating about the use of a tool or its user without any corresponding fossils, bones or evidence to link the two.

    We find some rocks with some wear on them, they look like tools for smashing something; why nuts, why chimps, where is the other evidence ???

    So they could be tools used by Tano giants – or just rocks.

  2. Loren Coleman responds:

    Yes, exactly.

  3. DeBo responds:

    sounds like a lot of items attributed to cryptids or other mysterious creatures…

  4. joppa responds:

    The Tano giants remind me of the Giant Indians (or Bigfoots ) of Patagonia decribed by Magellean during his voyage around the world.

  5. sschaper responds:

    18 ft tall? Is that biomechanically possible?

  6. mahlerfan responds:

    It seems a bit premature to jump to any conclusion. The stones may have been too large for a human hand, but what if both hands were employed in its use. Chimpanzees learn from each other by observing. What if the origin of their stone use was from originally observing some other animal, be it humans or the legendary tano giants. And what about the yam residue on the stones they are so quick to dismiss ?

  7. mystery_man responds:

    Well, sschaper, do you mean biomechanically possible like the dinosaurs? That being said, I do have my doubts about the size of this purported homonid. I don’t know that area well, but I am curious to know what the biological reason would be for a bipedal hominid to evolve that kind of incredible size? That is growth of a scale not seen in mammals, certainly odd for a bipedal one, and I wonder what the environmental factor that would key for such size is. Things just don’t evolve to be the way they are for no reason. And then, even if there is a plausible reason for why they would evolve to be so huge, there is the question of how they would nourish themselves (well, besides the nuts, I guess.) It seems to me that developing this size is something that would not make biological sense.
    The chimp theory is an interesting one, but why would they use such large, unwieldy stones? I would think that they would use smaller stones to get the job done. Why conserve all the extra energy lifting huge, heavy rocks? The lack of fossils is telling, although fossils are rare and this is in and of itself not definitive evidence against their existence there. Fossils can pop up when they are least expected. I think it is a good idea not to jump to any conclusions about this just yet.

  8. sschaper responds:

    The drawing shows a pongid that would be I think, too gracile to be 18 feet tall. I’ not sure those leg bones would bear the weight without snapping, as drawn. That is what I am wondering.

  9. fredfacker responds:

    15′ tall — that would be two Yao Mings. Heck, according to some reports that’s almost two bigfoots tall!

  10. dogu4 responds:

    Interesting article. Regarding the evolutionary path that leads certain animals to gigantism, I think it must be like any evolutionary path; it succedes because of it’s leading towards increased survivability. A really big animal is less prone to predation, usually has a longer life (slower repro rate), and possibly less vulnerable to being displaced from its prime habitat or prey (or less able), presuming it’s food source is abundant and available in the first place. Of course the organism must be able to support its size from an ecological point of view. Primates throughout their evolutionary history have radiated into nearly every kind of ecological niche over their evolutionary history, and the admittedly meager fossil record indicates that there used to be a lot more species of “us” at one time ranging from heavy jawed robustoids to delicate pygmy erecti, and from fruit eating marmosets, to biodigesting gorillas to carnivores (I’d argue that would be us).

    It’s a curious kind of speculation as to what would cause a primate to evolve into a super-gigantic apex hervibove, but we do have a spectacular example of just this in the example of a relatively diminutive prehistoric hyrax-like creature, evidently faced with its own unique evolutionary pressures and pathways for expression finding a very successful set of conditions (they became the elephants after some several millions of years). And these special sets of conditions would periodically be available to other families of animals and some of those would be presumably available for some fortunate over-sized primate living in a habitat where size matters and whose lucky primate progenii will carry-on expressing those genes to best of their instictual and intellectual abilities until they become a disadvantage, at which time its reproductive rate will cause it to diminish or disappear altogether. So, again the question; where are the bones? I wonder what percentage of supposed primate species there could have been and what percentage of primate species can we suspect that we have identified.

    I wonder why primates never have radiated into the sea and if not why? Or have they and so far failed to recognise the evidence. Could kushtaka and the the Steller Seamonkey have been aquatic and marine primates and sea people.

  11. mystery_man responds:

    That is true dogu 5, and I didn’t say it was impossible, but what were the factors in this particular environment? Elephants not withstanding, it is not a common thing to develop such an enormous leap in size and as a matter of fact, it is often a dsadvantage to do so as it requires more of a nutritional commitment. To evolve to this size is taking a risk in that the animal must then support that extra mass. So the animal needs to develop the size, maintain it, then have it be advantageous enough to carry the genes on to future generations. For a bipedal ape, is this the best path, I wonder? That is why most land based animals have not typically developed this level of gigantisism. A lot of animals have evolved to be smaller over the millenia, so would this one get to the 18 foot size range in this place at this time?

  12. mystery_man responds:

    I guess without further evidence in the form of fossils, etc, it is going to be hard to determine if this is the case although if indeed a primate has evolved into a giant apex herbivore it would be quite an interesting find! Right now, it doesn’t seem likely to me, but perhaps the evidence will support that theory in time. If they do end up finding fossils, I think it will be interesting to see if the super sized ape theory holds any water.

  13. Giant_Catfish responds:

    Nature always finds a way….and remember i think size would matter not hehe… unless your in Africa

  14. dogu4 responds:

    Mystery-man: How a population genetically adapts to its environment is through a complex process of feedback mechanisms where all the factors (surface to volume ratios, available food, chance mutation, etc..) are under the constant pressure of natural selection. The difference between an organism being favored because it is either bigger or smaller than the others might pivot on variables which at first seem not particularly significant, but under the amplifying properties of selective pressures, the obscure or irrelevant can become a major trait preserved and expressed repeatedly through future generations. The point is that due to the complexity of these multi-variable formulas for success(this is why ecology is more akin to algebra than biology) speculating as to just how a population will respond over time to changing conditions is an example of a kind of mathematics where there can really be no specific predictive certainty… though we do have models…so we study what we can of surviving modern populations and note examples of those who were evidently successfully adapted and survived and from them we develope models which are tested against the growing body of evidence observed. And we search the fossil record for clues, never failing to recognize that the record is very very very spotty over all. Only a small proportion of the total number of species over millions and millions of years have left fossils which have been discovered, and considering the extraordinary conditions needed to preserve living tissue for really long periods of time, I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that we have these and those that we do have serve as a testiment to the dogged persistence of paleontologist in the field as they apply their expanded scientific knowledge to further enhance our understanding of how the world around us came to be, from a scientific viewpoint.

  15. mystery_man responds:

    Yes, dogu5, I am actually a biology teacher so I am aware of how evolution works! It is a fascinating subject for me and thank you for your responses to me. I always like discussing these things with people who share the same interest. I think you are right about studying models of how different creatures have evolved in the past and I found your example of an elephant to be a good example. I suppose in the end, genetic drift, chance mutation, and various environmental factors are going to produce often suprising results. Just look at the peacock, that one tormented Darwin for a long time because he just couldn’t figure out how the big, bright tail could possible be an advantage for survival! That’s when he came up with the theory that some species develop traits for mate selection that may not necessarily be advantageous in other ways. So nature finds some suprising ways to deal with the environment sometimes. You are right in that who am I to say giganticism wouldn’t be the right way to go? I just feel that primates in all ages have always been adaptable to the environment in other ways rather than developing huge size, and 15-18 feet tall is quite a big jump, there is no other primate known that has ever evolved this kind of size. So this is all very compelling to think that primates might somehow turn to giganticism as a survival adaptation. I am not wholly against the idea, but I find myself speculating. I wonder what the food supply is like in that area, what about predation, what was the competition from other animals, what was the ecology like to spur a primate into becoming such a giant? Did it become a giant and then learn to use tools? This whole theory of a giant ape, and a tool using one at that, is I suppose not an entirely impossible idea and nature is capable of making these things happen no matter how much we think it may or may not happen. I just love to wonder about these things. I am aware that the fossil evidence is spotty as you might know by reading my past posts here. Fossils are remarkably rare and there is a distinct possibility that fossils of this creature may still turn up down the line. I just find it all a remarkable process and it never ceases to amaze me.

  16. Rillo777 responds:

    Reading the story we have the folklore of a “tano Giant”, then we have a stone that may be a tool, then we have stories that chimpanzees might have been seen using tools 500 years ago and voila! we have a giant monkey breaking nuts with a stone axe. Is this really science?

    Is it possible, considering the many speculations in this story, that maybe whoever used these alleged tools might have been human? For example, whatever else you make out of the Bible, it does mention very large humans. Other ancient writings contain references to giant humans as well. Since there are no fossils or other reliable ways of dating the artifacts, we don’t really know how old these “tools” may be. So why do we assume some extinct apes, chimps or other non-human creature made them?

  17. dogu4 responds:

    Mystery-Man; I respect your knowledge on biology and the contributions you make to our future citizens for whom a sound understanding of science is critical as our emergent technologies continue to become more biologically based. I’m no scientist but I do try to read widely and sometimes deeply into subjects on biology and natural history (among others) and it reflects a lifelong fascination with cryptic primates (Everything from Edgar Rice Burroughs, King Kong and Congo to Carl Akeley, George Schaller, and Dr Meldrum, and long hours as a child in Chicago’s Field Museum admiring Bushman) in what an informal study of what I like to call (and if the name hasn’t already been coined, I’ll consider myself its creator) Speculative Hominid Biology in Natural and Cultural History.

    Maybe because I’m not a professional, I don’t necessarily feel compelled to adhere to all the orthodoxies but I do try to understand them, and that is what provokes me and brings me a lot of enjoyment. When it comes to Sasquatch in particular I have an additional affinity for the subject since I’ve spent some significant time in its reputed habitat (never seen one, nor have I ever seen physical evidence…not even a howl) and some other really big wild areas where nature seems un-broken, and where the indiginous folk sometimes have stories which often enough are seen to be very practical descriptions of the world in which they live(d).

    Anyhow, forums like these are good ways to stay current and learn about stuff in this interesting area, and I appreciate your sharing your thoughts.
    Speculative biology is open to un-conventional ideas and all sorts of notions are proposed; lots of which are off-base, even if they are built on basically sound scientific concepts, but I don’t feel as if I’m squandering my limited intellect by savoring a particularly satisfying theory, even if its obviosly wrong the way it’s proposed, as long as it continues to propell my interst in the subject, but it is good to remind ourselves of what the concepts we use to bolster our positions mean in the strictly scientific sense, and so this speculative biology provokes me to try to undestand more deeply what science has discovered in its relatively short, systematic and dynamic manner.

    About gigantism; I see that gigantism isn’t so much a rarity, but a practical certainty. Somewhere in the evolutionary process acquired mutations or long supressed suites of genes that express themselves through the control of the organism’s size appear in nearly all populations and if the conditions are favorable they are passed forward, we all know this. But those conditions are themselves the result of a dynamic landscape where conditions are changing, catastrophically or imperceptibly slowly, and as populations specialize to take advantage of what the current regime has available they are necessarily taking a risk from the standpoint of a conscious strategy but there is no scientific evidence that it is conscious despite our mind’s prediliction to fabricate a meaningful pattern, move to where conditions will support them (or die out). And we mustn’t forget; it is also a “risk” to not change…and then again there are natural disaters which trump all “evolutionary fitness” Witness the S.J.Gould’s exploration of the Burgess Shales. It makes sense that grazing herbivores will grow as large as they can in the tropics where rarely is the bulk quantity of food an issue and this is where we find the evidence of their origins. Mammoths and rhinoceroses on the steppes; their size still a protection from predators, adapted to the cold by natural selection which favors blubber and hair, but the advantageous surface/volume ratio, and many other features, some vestigal only, are a result of their size being successful back when and where their antecedents lived. It makes sense for predators to be super large when its prey is super large, first: in order to take it, and second: in order to keep it.

    I think this process, natural selection, is mindless in the sense that, unlike humans, animals don’t consciously intend to grow larger or faster or smarter, they just succeed better, and persist as long as they can; and if the slow accumulation of their own acquired genetic traits peculiar to themselves enable them to adapt to the inevitable change that is sure to come, whether its changing weather, mutation of previously benign pathogen, or a newly introduced competitor…or a zillion other things, then they’ll be the lucky ones.

    In the case of this Tano Giant, like all first hand report we must allow for misinterpretation, especially when field biology as we think of it today, is still such a recent addition to our scientific knowledge. That said, speculative biology would be pointless if we didn’t also allow for the possibilty of its really existing. I can imagine a primordial equatorial africa with its hundreds of different species of primates; all of ’em engaged in survival passing the successful ones into the future. Since here there’s no shortage of food for a vegetation-biodigestion based creature, and size would be a great advantage. We see some gigantism in primates too (gorillas) and we can’t argue its been successful for millions of years in primates since gigantic primates are recorded in the fossil record. A primate 15 feet high? A slower moving, herbivorous ape whose ability to withstand the occasional predation by humans with their ingenious traps, spears and eventually guns, survives as in a small refugia of what to its human predators is just too remote and infested to worth the effort until our arrival. It’s not bio-physically unlikely, this we know since there are lots of examples of animals from many other radiations of animals that are now or have been much bigger. Why not? Of course, this works in reverse too…leprechauns, anyone?

  18. mystery_man responds:

    Dogu5, your post was very knowledgeable and interesting. When I said “risk”, I in no way meant that it was a conscious thought on the animals part and did not intend it to be taken that way at all. That would be absurd. But if the size reaches a point where the energy required to sustain the mass outweighs the benefits the mass provides, then you are going to see less of a selection for the giganticism gene. That is the context I am using the word “risk”. There are some things you say that I don’t completely agree with. I have to disagree with you on the point that it is a risk to not change. I don’t buy this as this just isn’t always the case. Evolution does not necessarily strive towards a more complex form and you are very right to say that evolution is pretty much a mindless process. Through selective processes and pressures, a creature will adapt to the form which best suits its environment, no more, no less. If a creature is perfectly suited to its habitat and has no need to change or select for further mutations in order to adapt, what makes you think that it is a risk not to change? In evolution, it’s pretty much “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You can see many examples of this in modern animals. Two very common examples, The crocodillians and sharks have changed very, very little in millions of years. Is it a risk to them that they haven’t changed? Of course not. They are two very, very successful animals in their niches.

    So if a given biological entity is suited to its environment, able to find food, not under threat of heavy predation or competition, then I feel there is no certainty that it is going to develop giganticism as you say. No trait has a certainty to develop if there is no need for it. Evolution does not pick and choose but rather works to select for the traits that will allow the organism to best survive in its current environment as needed. And as you even said yourself, there is every possibility that the animal will become smaller, which has its own set of advantages.

    I also do not believe predators are necessarily super large when their prey is super large. There are other ways to adapt to catch prey other than developing giganticism, such as pack hunting, so giganticism is not a given here either, I feel.

    Interesting about the mammoths you mention, and of course animals in the past have developed truly large size, especially in cold areas, areas where food is abundant, and of course the oceans where the particulars of gravity are less of an obstacle to substantial growth. But consider what I said before, that evolution has no grand design or will to develop increasingly large or advanced forms, but rather only what is needed. I must reiterate that I don’t find the idea impossible, but would the kind of size we are seeing in these Tano Giants really be needed? 18 feet? Why did it peak at that size? Even the elephants and mammoths you mention do not get that large. Nature is not one for unneeded excess, and of course I don’t mean that it consciously sees it as unneeded, but at some point, the selective pressures are going to balance out at about the amount of size the creature needs to best survive. Why select for 18 feet when 10 feet is doing the job just fine? Of course the world has seen giants like this in the past, such as the dinosaurs, and you can go and say there are all of these minor variables, but the bottom line is that whatever is most suitable to the organism in its own particular environment is what is going to develop. I don’t think there is any ireversable certainty towards giganticism nor any inevitable need for a species to keep on changing as I have pointed out with clear examples of sharks and crocodiles.

    I think your posts are very knowledgeable and interesting and I don’t see you as being of limited intellect at all. You have obviously studied this subject a great deal and it is dear to you. You have good theories and you can back them up with nice examples. Some of your explanations might be a bit heavy for the more lay people that read these posts, but you have some engaging thoughts. I may not agree with all your points, but that is not to say you are wrong. This is great to talk so in depth about this with someone who knows his stuff!

  19. mystery_man responds:

    By the way, I like your term “Speculative Hominid Biology In Natural and Cultural History.” Cool term!

  20. mystery_man responds:

    And I should say “someone who knows his OR HER stuff.” Sorry if there was any presumption there on my part.

  21. kittenz responds:

    dogu4,

    There’s one theory, which has the support of quite a few anthropologists, that says there was an aquatic primate: our own ancestors. The theory is intriguing because it explains so many things about the way that our species differs from other apes, and although it’s startling at first to think of our ancestors as having gone through a semi-aquatic phase, there’s nothing in the fossil record that would contraindicate it.

    Our species requires much more water to survive than most other savannah animals in our size range. This seems strange if we believe that our species evolved under savannah conditions, where water is very scarce for much of the year. But for an animal that evolved in terrain that was flooded for a large part of the year, water would have been more readily available and there would not have been so much selective pressure for our species to have evolved with less dependence on a steady water supply.

    Fossils of species thought to be ancestral to ours are invariably found in areas that were, at the time the animal was living, near lakes, rivers, or inland seas. Of course, part of the reason for that could be that those muddy areas are more conducive to the fossilization of remains and footprints. But some of the features unique among the primates to our species become easier to explain if our species was once semi-aquatic.

    For instance, we have a respiratory system that is much more like a marine mammal’s than most land mammal’s. We can deliberately hold our breaths; most land mammals do not have such voluntary control of their breathing, but aquatic mammals do.

    Our species tends to mate face-to-face. Most land mammals do not, but many marine mammals do. This could be a function related to our bipedalism, but even our bipedalism could have come about because our long-ago ancestors found themselves in a world suddenly much wetter. We’re the only mammals that habitually walk upright on two legs. I don’t believe it’s because we use tools; chimps use tools too, but they are not bipedal. Walking the way that we do is hard. We have to learn how to walk upright, over the first few years of our lives. Bipedal locomotion required a major realignment of our species’ skeletal structure. There must have been some powerful evolutionary mechanism at work, to have made selecting for a bipedal gait “worth it”. Bipedalism may have arisen from a need to keep our heads above water in terrain that was flooded for much of the year.

    We have much more body fat, especially subcutaneous fat, than other primates. Mammals that evolve large fat stores are usually either mammals which hibernate, such as bears and dormice, in which case the fat stores are seasonal, or aquatic or semi-aquatic mammals such as dolphins, seals, and hippos. Aquatic animals keep their fat stores year round – and so do we. Subcutaneous fat, such as is found in us and in aquatic mammals, is good for providing buoyancy in water, and for insulation in water. Even human babies are born fat, unlike ape babies which are slender and have very little fat.

    We have very little body hair. The usual explanation for this is that our ancestors needed to shed excess heat, but that seems to me to be a flawed argument. Hairlessness is extremely rare among land mammals. Most savannah animals have coats of hair or fur, which is a good insulator and protects against the sun – on land. Even desert species such as fennec foxes and camels have thick coats of fur to insulate them from the sun. But hairlessness is the norm for most aquatic or semi-aquatic mammals; they rely mainly on subcutaneous fat for insulation. The body hair that we do have has a growth pattern that is streamlined like that of an otter.

    We also sweat differently from other savannah animals. Most land mammals, apes included, do not sweat over their entire bodies the way that we do. But aquatic animals do tend to have sweat glands over their entire bodies. When we sweat we also shed comparatively huge quantities of water and salt. That does not make evolutionary “sense” for a savannah-dwelling animal, but for an aquatic or semi-aquatic animal the loss of water and salt through sweating would not be a selective disadvantage.

    Our species also has huge oil glands, especially over our heads and upper bodies. Apes, by comparison, have tiny sebaceous glands. In most animals with abundant sebaceous glands, the function of those glands for waterproofing the fur or skin.

    Even our large brains may be the result of an aquatic phase in our species’ development. It is now known that Omega-3 fatty acids are vital to the development of brain tissue. A diet rich in fish and other aquatic animal food would have provided the Omega-3 fatty acids that would have allowed our species to develop such large, complex brains.

    I think that this theory of our species’ having experienced an aquatic phase in its development has a lot of valid points. Our distant ancestors may have lived in this type of seasonally flooded environment for a couple of millions of years, before a drying trend forced them to adapt to a dryer, savannah lifestyle.

    This theory has been around for awhile. I first read about it about twenty years or so ago, and I have tried to learn all I can about it since then. I don’t know if I’m totally sold on it, but it certainly is an intriguing possiblity to contemplate.

  22. mystery_man responds:

    What Kittenz wrote about brings me back to something Dogu4 (sorry, I said dogu5 before), speculated about before and that is whether primates have ever adapted to an aquatic life. I think the idea is fascinating and not entirely far fetched. I can’t see any reason why a primate wouldn’t evolve to take advantage of the rescources of the ocean or to adapt to a flooded environment. I have read about the theories that Kittenz mentioned and it is all very compelling stuff. I have even heard of some aquatic cryptids that have been speculated to be some sort of water dwelling primate. I am not completely sold on the idea either, but the points made seem very valid to me. Any thoughts on this dogu4? You mentioned it before and it would be nice to see some of your own theories.

  23. dogu4 responds:

    Kittenz and mystery-man: The Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT), as it is known, has it’s origins back in the early days (not that long ago, actually) of the discussion on human origins. You, and mystery-man ought to checkout the concise but thorough treatment the subject is given over at Wikipedia. In a nutshell; it details the earliest appearance of the concept in ancient natural philosophies, and the idea’s modern genesis in the 1930s and again in the origin of the modern evolutionary theory as proposed by marine biologist Alister Hardy in the early 60’s when it was widely ridiculed based mostly on the media’s (and opposing scientists’) apparent inability to present it as anything other than just another kookey scientific idea lacking any real evidence and it was viewed in contrast to the still widely held savannah theory, and in the present, following journalis and feminist writer Elaine Morgan’s 1982 “Descent of Woman”, and later “The Aquatic Ape”. Wikipedia gives a nice rational reasonable rebuttal to the theory too. I’ve seen a very nice segment featuring her on a relatively recent Discovery or History Channel program regarding human evolution. Dr Morgan’s enthusiasm and line of reasoning has yet to be darkened.

    I think the savannah theory of early man evolving in a dry savannah, with humans seen as a kind of upright baboon, out amid the hyenas, big cats and vast herds of ungulates…and that is where we find the bones today…is a little presumptuous. The place where early hominid fossils are found were different many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Essential to the preservation is the likelihood of the evidence being covered and secured in mineral matrix favorable to preservation, waterborne sediments being the most common…so we imagine the scene back then with oases or ponds in a parched landscape, subject to being covered with periodic ashfall and flash flood. I think water is the key and primate intelligence would have sought out the most abundant and productive life zone as their preferred habitat, and that would be, without question, the intertidal zones, particularly in the tropics. It’s been pointed out that there are only two primates that we know of that actively dive into water, humans and proboscis monkeys. The distinctive nasal structure we share permits the two species to go head first into water without having water forced directly into the sinuses. Human dentition with its collection of biting incisors and crushing molars, it has been suggested, most resembles the functionality of another intelligent, social, adaptable mammal, otters. Seems to me that were we adapted for eating meat and whatever else we could collect out on the savannah, our teeth would have found the slicing carnasial teeth which most of our primate relatives retain, a useful feature and a trait which would be preserved by natural selection.

    I think that when the ideas contained in the aquatic ape theory we first presented, its detractors scoffed at the idea of humans evolving (at that point and sadly even today, a scientific reality that is rejected by the majority of US residents polled) from an aquatic species conjured up images of human dolphin hybrids akin to some sort of be-flippered mermaid, which is not what the hypothesis suggests, but we’re familiar with Flipper and are not even sure what role the vast mangrove systems (currently under the pressure of development for “aquaculture=cheap shrimp and easy cash) of the continental coastal margins play in world ecosystems since they are so hard to investigate and so complex to imagine. Considering human mobility it seems natural that while mangroves would be the nursery for hominid primates, we’d naturally follow its margins and contributing water sources, following into the landscapes which drain into the continental margins in deltas and intertidal areas.

    In the as-of-yet unrecognized field of speculative evolutionary biology, I would propose a few candidates which could have filled the bill when it comes to evidence of primates which had adapted to a more aquatic lifestyle. Number one on the list would be Georg Steller’s famously detailed and descriptive 1741 report of a creature that he called a “sea-monkey” (not the tiny invertebrate sea monkeys, which are a crustacean). Following would be creatures from european culture’s not too distant past preserved as folklore; selkies, naeads and nerieads. In the Pacific Northwest, the legendary kushtakah, likewise inhabited the imaginations and supposedly the moving waters that were so integral to their abundant material culture. I’m reluctant to put mermaids onto the list since we so often hear these legends ascribed to libidinous sailors peering through the tricky light of the marine layer, but if a sailor couldn’t tell between a dugong and mermaid, perhaps they also couldn’t tell between a dugong and some other cryptic creature. Particularly worth noting that the histories of exploration were not typically written by the sea-farers themselves but rather by academics in centers of learning, who themselves may never travel away from their libraries, let alone, gather first hand information.

    If your interested in something about some of the now-diminished populations of animals that had for “countless generations” took advantage of the wealth of resource opportunity that the sea offers, which were first encountered by europeans, you might want to check-out Farley Mowat’s “Sea of Slaughter” in which the author does something very interesting. He analyzes the old commercial and tax records from seaports in western Europe during time between the early 16th century up into the early 20th to try to establish a rough baseline of the original populations of animals, quite a few of which are now extinct and those that survive are but a shadow of their former selves, which predate their being discovered and exploited by whalers, sealers, and commercial egg-hunters.

  24. mystery_man responds:

    Kittenz and Dogu5, I appreciate the information you have provided on the aquatic ape theory and the theory that humans may well be partially adapted to water. In my experience, the theory has never been given any serious consideration and I think this is unfortunate because the line of reasoning is solid and worth looking into, I feel. Having been trained in old school zoology and biology, most of the reactions of those around me to these ideas have been exactly as you would imagine them to be, which is scoffing. I suppose at one point, I would have scoffed a bit too, but my views on this have changed somewhat. I don’t believe there to be anything in this theory that would directly contradict anything that is known about zoology and evolution. For me, if the points of a theory are valid, then they are worth something and not to be dismissed out of hand.
    To me, the idea that humans became at least semi aquatic has a lot of sensible reasoning and evidence. It could be that humans never fully evolved to be aquatic because the environment did not key for it in the end and we stopped short of going down the road to becoming fully aquatic. This leads to the exciting possibility that there could have been some sort of speciation that continued from those early starts at an aquatic life and these new species could have branched off to adapt to a fully aquatic ecology. In that sense, there could have been aquatic primates that are either extinct already or still live into modern days. It would certainly explain some bizzarre marine cryptids I have heard of. It is fascintating to think about. I find myself wondering if fossil evidence of anything like this will pop up down the line.

  25. dogu4 responds:

    MysteryMan…I’m not so sure that some sort of semi-sapient primate hasn’t become fully aquatic, or at least as aquatic as sea-otters or even polar bears (they are considered marine mammals officially, y’know. Again I refer to the legendary Kushtakah or Steller’s Sea-ape. After reading Farley Mowat’s “Sea of Slaughter” you might appreciate the notion that quite a few species un-recorded by the late-arriving early biologists and naturalists, such as they were, could have escaped detection prior to their extirpation. And as for primates adapting to the sea…well, human evolutionary history isn’t over yet. Certainly technology has made us effectively marine mammals as well as flying mammals for the time being, and I shudder to think of the magnitude of change which would have to occur for humans to once again be subject to the forces of natural selection to anything like the degree that we once were not all that long ago. The sea, after all represents a far larger habitat and offers more potential for a population naturally thriving and proliferating with its DNA into the future, but the most productive and sustaining habitat on the planet, bar none, whether you’re in the tropics or the southern-most tip of South America, is without question, the inter-tidal zone. The ocean itself buffers its climate and twice daily the tides refresh the zone with everything from plankton to dead whales. There is almost nothing that would naturally wash up on the beach that we can’t eat (red tide, dynoflagellates carrying Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, excepted) or use to survive and thrive. And the ability to travel on, in or under the water opens a possible transportation that at the very least favors a generally well adapted (but not super specialized), genetically diverse population facing unfavorable changes, and opening up more habitats, each leading to a slightly different crucible, a slightly different laboratory, in which to test the forces of evolution carried out as populations are being selected, adapted, finely tuning their innate behaviors to their unique situations. So, the reason I think our kind of human beings didn’t go to the sea isn’t because the resources weren’t just the right kind (and as I said before, I kinda think we might have at sometime in hominid’s evolutionary history) but rather our ability to make things with our hands, technology, provided our kind of ape with an advantage that wouldn’t be very practical, and therefore not likely to be selected, for populations who were adapted and therefore focused on living only in the water instead of living on the beach’s transitional zones where fire, stone tools, carrying baskets, and dry shelter make survival sense and represent a supremely advantageous step-up over out would-be competitors. So, in a sense it was our adaptation to life in the inter-tidal zones that lead to our being so adaptable to living on land, though we have to be intelligent in our use of technology to maintain the link to the sea (we need water, salt, iodine, and a high fat high protien diet…just like in seafood).

    It seems to me that the reason we are so endeared to the savannah model of human evolution is because we find the fossils themselves out on the savannah and when we look around we see troupes of baboons, social primates, existing just as we might have. The fact that the preservation of the fossils themselves was something of a fluke (ash fall, flash flood, predator’s cache or midden) should indicate that it might not represent the typical surroundings, and I agree with Dr Hrdy and Morgan that our genetic adaptations make more sense in a quasi-aquatic environment. I think anyone who’s ever lived along an ocean beach realizes just how ideal it is to us…too bad we don’t find fossils of primates very often there. One reason we find fossils in the dry flat expanse of the eroded olduvai region and other semi-arid places like these savannahs would be because little fragments of fossils are lying all around and our brains are very good at holographically identifying tiny clues and comparing ’em to our search image which we’ve got mapped in our heads. Those gigantopithecus jaws, found after being dragged into porcupine dens so long ago…no one thinks that Gigantopithecus actually lived deep in limestone caves. The geology of the East African Rift region has long had a geology conducive to the formation of sagger lakes and it was the lakes, not the savannah conditions per se, which I think facilitated the formation of fossils such as we find there now.

    Ratz..another long post…can’t help that I find myself with too much time with provocative subjects and interesting correspondents.

  26. kittenz responds:

    I’ve read several rebuttals of the aquatic ape theory and none of the rebuttals is as plausible to me as the teory itself. Even the fact that we humans today enthusiastically turn to bodies of water for recreational activities bolsters the belief in the possibility that our species is actually a semi-aquatic one. Perhaps a quest for water is even the spark that ignited namadic behavior in our species: as the plains of Africa became more and more arid, ancient hominids began moving from place to place to be near substantial bodies of water.

  27. dogu4 responds:

    I’m totally with you on that, Kittenz, and have been since first looking into the hypothesis.

    One really interesting bit of evidence that is sometimes mentioned, though not used as persuasively as it could be, is regarding dental morphology. The teeth of humans instantly identify ’em as primates, for a number of reasons (structure, morphology, pattern/sequence), but one thing that further identifies human teeth as opposed to most other primates) are the rounded molars suitable for grinding. Baboons, and all sorts of other primates have molars for grinding, but what are they grinding? Baboons and most other terrestrial primates focus on tough fibrous roots, grasses, and nuts, ets and the molars in these species reflect their function perfectly, with their molars having higher crowns which presumably are used to not just grind but to also cut the tough fiberous kinds of food for which they are adapted. Humans however don’t have the cutting edge on their molars, and a couple of other primates reflect this too: crab eating macaques and some rhesus monkeys have very human looking molars…in the animal world I’ve only been able to identify one other critter that has the look of human molars; the sea otter. Compare it by looking at not only the primates I mentioned, but compare this otter’s teeth with river otters…the carnasial-like characteristics typical of nearly all members of the carivora family are gone from the sea otter and in its place are rounded molars ideally suited for a generalized diet of mollusks and crustaceans. This site has a nice gallery of skulls which show this clearly.

    One animal which also feeds by crushing shells in its jaws, though not shown in the above collection, is the walrus. I frequently have access to walrus teeth as I use them in carvings that I create (fossil walrus from Savunga, properly collected, as legal ivory) and while the teeth are of course not like human, or even sea otter, they too share the bulbous polished grinding surfaces. I’ve also run across illustrations of ancient shark teeth with likewise fed on mussels and other shelled mollusks and of course, the rounded polished surfaces are recognizable there. Oh, and giganto? I am aware that electronmicroscopic scans of the surface of these few samples show some similar wear patterns with pandas (micro-phytoliths), but again we see these rounded grinding surfaces which not surprisingly function pretty well for smashing the shoots and culms of bamboo.

    Teeth…I can’t say whether a leopard changes its spots but it and all its kind reveal a lot about themselves by their teeth…and they’ve long been valued for revealing the un-deniable evolutionary history of their owners.

  28. mystery_man responds:

    I have even heard that the slight webbing on our hands is thought of in some circles as a sort of vestige of an adaptation to a semi aquatic environment. This is all enthralling informaton on a theory that I hadn’t known very much about until corresponding about it here. Thank you Kittenz and Dogu4 for the information you have provided. As I said before, I come from a background where this sort of theory was never taken very seriously and thus I had never really had a good opportuninty to look into it much. But on further inspection, this all seems remarkably plausible. Dogu4’s points about the intertidal zone being ideal for humans and our ability to use tools, as well as the dental structure of human teeth are undeniably intrigueing. If we had developed a good, solid use of our hands and tool using, then it might make more sense to remain in the intertidal zone where the rescources could be utilized while at the same time not requiring us to give up the obvious evolutionary advantage of our hands not to mention the technological advances that had been made as a direct result of those adaptations. In that case, it would make little evolutionary sense to make the full jump into a wholly aquatic lifestyle. Since you have started me thinking about this subject, I find myself thinking that some of the best candidates for a fully aquatic primate would be those that broke off from the line of humans before the advantages of fully opposable thumbs and tool using had asserted themselves. If these primates happened to adapt to life in the sea at the expense of fully utilizing their hands, then they could very well have developed into a fully aquatic species. Just a thought. Although I am still somewhat enamored of the savahnna theory of human evoltuion, I am most certainly interested in learning more about ths Aquatic Ape Theory. It has definately gotten me thinking.

  29. dogu4 responds:

    I wonder if webbing isn’t a recessive trait that a lot of primate (and other terrestrial vertebrate) populations carry, surfacing infrequently, and becoming more frequently expressed when conditions favor its owners’ success as a line of descent. Who knows where the primate line may have gone, but primates have been so successful on land and in trees, it’s hard to believe more primates wouldn’t have adapted to semi-aquatic lives. We base almost all of what we know about early primates from fossils which we almost always find in the fortunate erosion train lying exposed in necessarily arid, sparsely covered exposures. Primate populations that were adapted for the coastal mangrove type ecosystem over the last several million years would be below sea-level these days with the post-glacial rise in sealevels experienced worldwide at the beginning of the holocene. Not great for discovering fossils…sorta like the guy who’s looking for his keys under the street light cuz he can see better there… Nature is biased. I think there are some great secrets just a couple hundred feet submerged along the coastlines.

  30. mystery_man responds:

    That is an interesting observation about the fossils, Dogu4. I wonder how many attempts have ever been made to do any sort of fossil dig in submerged environments? It truly seems as though it could be worth someone’s while to try it.

  31. dogu4 responds:

    There has been interest in underwater research for some time but the technologies and their applications have been un-available. While many new approaches are emerging, it is so expensive and intensive in use of people and resources that it’s not as widely applied as it might be, and probably will be more in the future. Of course underwater archaeology, not exactly digging for fossils as we use the term, has been going on for some time and there’s a lot more to be done. There is a case of a late pleistocene cave whose entrance is only accessed from below sealevel along France’s Cote ‘Azure d’Azure. Some dredging was done in Southeast Alaska on a relatively shallow submerged bench which would seemingly been a good spot for early inhabitants. And the most promising of all could be the anaerobic environment’s preservation of un-measured, impossible to imagine, archaeological treasures which now reside on the bottom of the Black Sea. Again, not exactly paleontology, but with huge implications as towards our understanding of the pre-historic scene.

  32. dogu4 responds:

    Jim, that is an awesome response and am delighted to get your perspective. It’s just what I’ve been waiting for. I’ve never had the opportunity to really discuss this with a real anthropologist (that would be physical or cultural?) before so I’ve bookmarked your site and will look forward to accessing your perspective on this subject. My interest in the subject, as I mentioned before, is not that I feel it’s necessary to think it’s the way Elaine Morgan does (I used the Dr title as an honorific only, but there are PhD holders who do ascribe to an alternative view, Dr Hardy, the concepts well known proponent). I enjoy exploring the world around me and that includes “going off trail”. I’m not attempting to get lost, but the process of discovery is rewarded with the enjoyment of learning new things and and gaining new appreciation for what knowledge we have. If a time machine were invented tomorrow that allowed us to watch the time-lapse development of human evolution, and it turned out to be just as the conventional model predicts, I’d have no problem with it, but wouldn’t it be surprising if there were no surprises? There are still contentious issues regarding human evolution (aside from the ID issue) within the field. I can’t speak for all outsiders, but my objective isn’t to cause the walls of science to crash down but I think there is some value to an unconventional perspective though one has to have a sense of proportion and realism to it, just as the those who are currently working in the field are occasionally closed-off to emerging ideas, seeing their role as one of protecting the accepted view, and serve the useful function of being the bulwark challenging un-substantiated claims or arguing for an alternative interpretation of the evidence. I’m sure anyone who’s versed in some of the history of human intellectual progress will recognize that the process begins with questioning and I’m eager to check-out your site. Thanks Jim.

  33. anthrosciguy responds:

    Let me correct a small error in doug’s response. The originator of the AAT/H was Alister Hardy, not Hrdy. Ordinarily I’d figure that was just a typo, but there is a Hrdy in human evolution circles, Dr. Sarah Balffer Hrdy, a primatologist. Alister Hardy was an excellent marine biologist with a penchant for being non-excellent when he stepped outside his field. That was the case with his “aquatic ape” idea (his formulation ignored much of what was known already at the time about human evolution and animal and human biology, and was even — oddly, I think — ignorant about marine-related biology like the deiving reflex) and was also the case with his spirtituality work, which tended toward heaping praise on known fakes. His actual work, dealing primarily with plankton, was fantastic and got him a knighthood.




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