Humans as the aquaphilic ape

By Razib Khan | July 4, 2013 6:58 pm

Credit: Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12228

Every now and then I’m asked about the ‘aquatic ape hypothesis’. My standard response is that there’s nothing to see, and everyone should just move on. But reading a new (open access) paper in Nature, Great ape genetic diversity and population history, it crossed my mind again. The reason is this section of the legend of figure 1, “The Sanaga River forms a natural boundary between Nigeria–Cameroon and central chimpanzee populations whereas the Congo River separates the bonobo population from the central and eastern chimpanzees.” I knew of the latter division. The former was novel to me. In fact I’d never even heard of the Sanaga river prior to this paper. Though the Congo seems clearly a significant geological and hydrological entity, I’m not quite so sure of the Sanaga. The division between the chimpanzees of Nigeria-Cameroon and those of the western Congo region may be one with an overdetermined number of causes. Nevertheless, taking these riverine features as a given parameters in generating allopatric speciation and subspecies level differences, I am struck by the contrast between ourselves and our cousins. In particular, the phylogeny above seems to imply that bonobos and common chimpanzees diverged on the order of ~2 million years ago, while the Nigeria-Cameroon population separated from the western Congo population ~500,000 years before the present (depending on the method of inference you rely on, though the qualitative insight here is preserved even if you switch them around). Though it took H. sapiens sapiens to break out of the world island of Afro-Eurasia, even our erectine cousins pushed on toward the southeastern extremities of Eurasia over 1 million years ago. It seems then that our savanna ape lineage is characterized by the behavior of wander lust and lack of fear of water.

Overall this paper is important because it has reasonable coverage in terms of genomes (hitting a genome at the same putative marker more than 10 times) and populations (sampling a wide array of subspecies from the great apes, N = 79). In the future this sort of analysis will probably be ho-hum, slicing apart a rich data set with a Swiss  army knife of statistical genomic analytic techniques (see the supplementary PDF). If you are interested in the complex population history of chimpanzees this paper is for you, as it explores changes in population sizes and admixture and gene flow. For me there are two big results which are of particular importance.

First, they did not find that loss of function substitutions were enriched in the human lineage. This matters because geneticists are still poking around for the “gene(s) which made us human.” Or perhaps more charitably the evolutionary processes specific and distinctive to our species which results in our uniqueness. I don’t deny we’re a unique species, but it seems that though this quest will continue for a while longer. That’s because it may be that there is nothing singularly unique about our genetics or our evolutionary origins. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if researchers conclude that there were general trends which applied to all of Homo over the past 2 million years, rather than the subset of Homo who are the ancestors of all the living humans today (since other lineages went extinct).

Second, notice how varied the range of genetic diversity for other Hominidae is. This has been moderately well known for a while, but the chestnut of wisdom that humans are particularly genetic homogeneous as far as great apes goes suffers from the problem of aggregating different populations and taking the average. The range of heterozygosity in chimpanzees is huge. Some human populations are actually more genetically diverse than several of the other ape populations. Additionally, notice the rather deep population divergences of these ape subspecies. The bonobo-chimpanzee split occurred as Homo came into being, but among the common chimpanzee subspecies the lineages began to diverge at about the same time as archaic Homo populations. In plain English it seems that population structure with the same time depth as that of the Neandertal vs. African human is present among common chimpanzees.

In the near future this sort of analysis will branch out to other mammalian taxa. But as usual, apes first, and others later.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Evolutionary Genetics
  • svman

    Apes were unable to cross rivers. Humans were not so limited. So how is this an argument against human ancestors being aquatic?

    • razibkhan

      it’s not. did you read the post? if you didn’t, don’t ever comment again.

      • svman

        You have a lot of hostility. You say to ignore the aquatic hypothesis, and then you discuss this new paper. Is it evidence for or against? I am just asking you to clarify.

        • razibkhan

          the aquatic ape theory is false. i thought i made that rather clear. that is all.

  • pschwartz

    I’m not a genetic anthropologist, or an anthropologist, but I’ll put my two cents in here.

    I think the reason our ancestors were not afraid of water was simple. Once we stood and walked upright there were physiological changes to our bodies that gave an additional benefit: we could also swim. If you look at pictures of apes crossing water they wade, they don’t swim. Apes therefore know that falling into water that is over their heads will result in drowning and certain death. Of course they’re afraid.

    If you think about your body position when swimming the legs are extended and the head cocked back to see where you are going. I don’t think any of the apes can do this (except us). You have to consider the planer kinesthetics of swimming, as early as australopithecus (Lucy) we could clearly manage the mechanics of swimming. Water was therefore no barrier to early humans–except for aquatic predators.

    This doesn’t explain why we lost our fur coat.

    One question to the assembled multitude that has crossed my mind, can any of the other great apes sweat, or are we the only ones that do?


    • svman

      There are lots of different swim strokes. The crawl was invented by American Indians, and so probably not what African ancestors used.

  • Mike Keesey

    It seems that gorillas are sort of intermediate in this regard, though. While the rivers have been enough of a barrier to promote some level of speciation, there is also quite recent interbreeding. Is there a reason river boundaries are less problematic for them than for chimpanzees?

    Or is this due to a single instance of one relatively late eastward migration of western gorillas? I recall a paper on Cross River gorillas where they pointed out some morphological anomalies (e.g., supernumerary teeth) that indicated recent hybridization.

  • stevesailer

    Rivers tend to divide apes and unite humans.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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