Was Man more aquatic in the past? - Fifty years after Alister Hardy

Was Man more aquatic in the past? - Fifty years after Alister Hardy

Marc Verhaegen & Mario Vaneechoutte



Fifty years ago, the marine biologist Sir Alister Hardy argued that human ancestors might have been living along coasts, feeding on waterside and littoral foods such as cray- and shellfish. He based his hypothesis on the observation that, unlike all other primates, humans lack a fur and have extensive layers of white fat tissue underneath the skin, features that in combination are typically and exclusively seen in (semi)aquatic mammals.

Since then, Hardy’s hypothesis has been supported by a long list of other independent features indicative for a more aquatic past, such as our large brains, streamlined bodies (head-spine-legs on one line), voluntary breath control, small mouth and weak biting muscles, projecting nose, poor olfaction, flat feet, and high needs of water, sodium, iodine and poly-unsaturated fatty acids (DHA), all abundant in – easily accessible – sea food. 

In our view, Mio- and Pliocene apes (e.g. very clearly for Helio-, Austriaco-, Oreopithecus) and australopithecines typically lived in mangrove or swamp forests and wetlands, feeding partly on aquatic foods, like lowland gorillas still do one or two hours per day, a life-style that we have named ‘aquarboreal’. After the Homo/Pan split about 5 million years ago, and possibly mostly during glacials, when sea levels were up to 120 m below today's, Homo populations adapted to more littoral lives, spreading along coasts as far as Java (Mojokerto, Flores), England (Pakefield, Boxgrove) and South Africa (the Cape), and only more recently from the coasts inland along rivers and lakes, including into the savannas.

In summary, although during the last 200 000 years our species is re-adapting to a largely terrestrial life, the very unique characteristics of our species, as well as the pre-adaptations that enabled increased intelligence and the development of speech can best be understood as evolved to adapt to a coastal life, including wading, swimming and diving. As a consequence, also several of present day’s human diseases and illnesses could be better understood when the scientific society finally accepted to study the overwhelming and consistent evidence that Man was more aquatic in the past.



For more information, please google ‘aquarboreal’ and ‘econiche Homo’.


Cunnane S. 2005. Survival of the fattest. World Scientific.

Hardy. A. 1960. Was Man more aquatic in the past? New Scientist 7: 624-6.

Morgan E. 1997. The aquatic ape hypothesis. Souvenir.

Roede M. et al. 1991. The aquatic ape: Fact or fiction? Souvenir.

Vaneechoutte M, Kuliukas A, Verhaegen M (Eds). 2011. Was Man more aquatic in the past? Fifty years after Sir Alister Hardy - Waterside hypotheses of human evolution. e-book Bentham Science Publishers. In press.

Verhaegen M. 1997. In den beginne was het water. Hadewijch.


The speakers


1. Marc Verhaegen - Mechelbaan 338, 2580 Putte, Belgium. m_verhaegen@skynet.be

2. Mario Vaneechoutte - Laboratory Bacteriology Research at the Faculty Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Ghent, Belgium. Mario.Vaneechoutte@UGent.be