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The aquatic ape theory is largely the brainchild of Elaine Morgan (see reading list below). She argued that many, if not all, of the anatomical curiosities of the human species could be explained if one posited a prolonged phase of evolution in an aquatic or semi-aquatic environment, specifically the Danakil Alps on the east coast of Ethiopia between 7 and 5 million years ago.

The aquatic ape theory would explain man’s bipedalism, nakedness, subcutaneous fat, salty sweat glands, larynx and tongue arrangement, ear wax, and body hair pattern. It would also explain man’s innate ability to hold breath and swim under water – an instinctive ability in newborn babies.

It would also explain the apparent missing links in the fossil record, since aquatic environments have not been targeted for investigation by archaeo-anthropologists.

A famous fan of the aquatic ape theory was the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams, who commented upon it as follows:

My favourite lost cause is the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, by which I am impressed...

Whether or not it turns out to be a true account of what happened, I love it for the sheer elegance of its solution to a set of problems which, it appears to me, the archeo-anthropological establishment has not properly addressed, but merely buried under a sedimentary accretion of assumptions.

It seemed curious to me that the two oddest features of human beings (bipedalism and hairlessness) rated scarcely a mention in the magisterial ‘Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Human Evolution’. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is an idea that richly deserves to be properly tested. Dismissing it is too easy. Refuting it will be a much more rigorous task...


The aquatic ape theory proposes no major modifications to existing Darwinian theory, but improves its explanation of the origins of man by positing a long period spent evolving in an aquatic environment.

Reading List

Sir Alaister Hardy, ‘Was Man more aquatic in the past?’, in ‘The New Scientist’, 17th March 1960.

Elaine Morgan, ‘The Aquatic Ape – A Theory of Human Evolution’, Souvenir Press, London, 1982.

Elaine Morgan, ‘The Scars of Evolution: What our Bodies Tell Us About Human Origins’, Souvenir Press, London, 1990.

M. Roede, J. Wind, J. Patrick and V. Reynolds (eds), ‘The Aquatic Ape: Fact Or Fiction’, Souvenir Press, London, 1991.

M. Russell (ed.), ‘Digging Holes in Popular Culture: Archaeology and Science Fiction’, Oxbow Books, 2002.

C. Knight, 'Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture', Yale University Press, 1995.

W.H. Calvin, 'A Brain For All Seasons',

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