Aquatic Ape Theory: Could Mermaids Really Exist?
The Mermaid Legend
We humans have been fascinated by mermaids for a long time. A few hundred years ago, the myth of beautiful semi-human women living beneath the sea was widely believed by superstitious sailors, many of whom spent weeks or months crossing foreboding oceans.
But even today people love mermaids. They’re everywhere, from animated films to Vegas-style shows to confusing so-called documentaries.
Most mermaids are depicted as beautiful, female creatures, alluring and gentle and possibly a bit naïve about the ways of us landlubbers. But it wasn’t always so.
In ancient times, mermaids usually brought bad news in the form of shipwrecks, death by drowning, and storms. Even pirates feared that mermaids might trick them out of their loot, or send their ship to the bottom of the sea out of vengeance.
Woe to the sailor who crossed a mermaid.
In the olden days, sailors and ship passengers spotted mermaids all the time, and many ocean-going folks regarded mermaids as real creatures of the sea. Of course, many experts write these sightings off as the delirious hallucinations of seamen who had been out on the ocean too long, away from women or any other civilization for that matter.
Some cite the manatee as a possible culprit when it comes to animals which may have been misidentified as “mermaids”.
That makes sense well enough. Mermaids and other sea monsters are likely the products of wild imaginations and too many hours spent at sea.
If that's true, we’d have to think there would no longer be mermaid sightings in modern times. The oceans of the world are well explored and people are (theoretically) much wiser when it comes to what’s really out there beneath the waves. As our collective knowledge of the sea increased, mermaids should have vanished into the realm of superstition and myth.
But that's not the case. There are alleged mermaids sightings even today, from around the world. So, what are these people seeing? Eventually, we can't help but wonder if there is something to these stories, and if sailors from days of old maybe weren't so delirious after all.
Do mermaids exist and, if so, where is the proof? How could it be possible that a half-woman, half-fish is really out there?
Mermaid Myths vs Real Stories
Like any cryptid with an enduring legacy, people from around the world claim to see mermaids. Unfortunately, there is also the occasional hoax, manipulated video footage, and plain-old honest mistake. For this reason, it’s important to take any sightings account with a grain of salt.
But there are a lot of mysterious creatures allegedly out there, tucked away in the shadows, safe from mainstream science. Is it possible mermaids are real but elusive animals, hidden beneath the vast veil of the world’s oceans?.
There’s a big problem with this idea. Mermaids, mermen – merfolk – are described as having the upper body of a human and the lower body of a fish. This works just fine for mythology, as there are all kinds of creatures with mixed-up bodies throughout ancient legend, but it makes things tough when we look at it from a biological perspective.
Humans are mammals and fish are, well, fish. You don't need a doctorate in marine biology to figure out that humans and fish have very different physiologies, and it’s pretty much impossible for a creature to retain the characteristics of both.
The pairing doesn’t work.
On the other hand, perhaps we’re taking the “fish” part too literally. Witnesses who see mermaids often catch only a fleeting glimpse, and may only describe their tails as “fish-like” for lack of a better word. Ancient sailors and seamen may not have known any other way to describe them. But what if mermaids are, in fact, 100% mammalian?
There are numerous well-known examples of aquatic mammals with fin-like tails: Whales and dolphins, dugongs, and manatees. Even pinnipeds, with their flipper feet, could be mistaken for having fish-like tails.
Does this mean there is a species of undiscovered mammal that closely resembles humans swimming around in the ocean?
Aquatic Ape Theory
Conventional theory on human evolution states that at some time in the distant past the ancestors of modern Homo sapiens descended from the trees, left the forests, and moved out into the savannah. In this environment most of the evolutionary changes that separate us from the apes took place.
But there is a minority opinion in the field of anthropology that disagrees.
They say by the time we moved into the savannah we had already been through a great deal of evolution because a close ancestor of Homo sapiens underwent an aquatic phase.
This is known as the Aquatic Ape Theory / Hypothesis. According to its proponents, our ancient ancestors would have spent a great deal of time in the water, perhaps the majority of the day, and would have begun to exhibit certain evolutionary adaptations to this lifestyle.
Before these attributes could fully develop, circumstances forced our ancestors out of the water and into the savannah.
Aquatic Ape Theory Explained in Detail
Evidence Suggesting the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis
Champions of this Aquatic Ape Theory cite several attributes modern humans share with aquatic mammals, which are not present in savannah mammals:
- Relative hairlessness: Other hominids are covered with hair, even though they may come from the same areas of the world where mankind evolved. Why did our ancestors lose their fur coats? According to Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT) it was because they were spending a lot of time in the water. Like with other aquatic mammals, all that hair just got in the way.
- Bipedalism: The ability to walk on two legs gives us great advantages over other animals, namely the ability to move at high speeds while still having our hands available for tool (or weapon) use. But proponents of AAT say this adaptation didn’t evolve on the savannah, but in the ocean. An upright body would give our ancestors an advantage when it comes to getting to the surface and breathing air, or keeping their heads above water when wading in shallows.
- Body fat: Humans have more fat than any other primate, and gain fat at an exceptional rate when compared to other mammals. You may think this is because of fast food and five-cent-wing happy hours, but according to AAT, it is because, like whales and dolphins, our ancestors were aquatic mammals. It’s not just the amount of fat we carry, but where it’s distributed. Much of our fat is subcutaneous, or under the skin, and that, they say, is more indicative of an aquatic environment.
- Large brains: Some proponents of AAT have insinuated that our impressive brain-to-body ratio is due to an aquatic past. They say the fats and other substances found in seafood contributed to the evolution of a better brain, and only when our ancestors began to spend more time in the sea did this big brain become possible.
- Respiratory system: AAT advocates suggest that our ability to control our breathing is unusual for a land mammal and more indicative of those that have evolved in an aquatic environment. Furthermore, the position of our larynx seems more like an aquatic mammal and is unlike other land mammals.
Aquatic Ape Theory and Mermaids
So what does Aquatic Ape Theory have to do with mermaids? Nothing, really. AAT is a concept subscribed to by a very small number of researchers, and even they do not extrapolate it out to suggest an explanation for the mermaid phenomenon. When people talk about Aquatic Ape Theory, really they’re only talking about human evolution, not mermaids.
But it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder what might have happened if supporters of AAT are correct. And, if not all of our ancestors left the sea and moved to the savannah. What if some stayed in the ocean, and continued to evolve into mermaids?
This is the theory explored by Animal Planet in their 2012 pseudo-documentary Mermaids: The Body Found. The film was shot with a real vibe to it, and many people were so convinced that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association had to put out a short post stating their position on the subject.
Their conclusion: Mermaids are, indeed, mythical.
Aquatic Ape Theory does present a compelling explanation for how a fully aquatic human-like creature may have evolved. Like modern whales that evolved from land mammals long ago, is it possible that a species of ape, descended from the same ancestors as we humans, may have evolved a flipper tail while retaining a human-like upper body?
To live a fully aquatic life in the ocean a hominid would have to undergo amazing evolutionary changes. If true, no doubt it was driven into the sea in search of food. But how does it hunt? How does it avoid predators? How smart is it? How deep can it dive? Where does it live?
So many questions arise out of this scenario, and all we can do is speculate.
The Evolution of Mermaids
What Would a Real-life Mermaid Be Like?
The following is only theory, but if we assume mermaids evolved from a similar ancestor as humans we can make some educated guesses about their lifestyle, behavior and some of the attributes they may possess:
- Intelligence: With big brains and a lineage close to modern humans, mermaids have to be pretty smart. Dolphins and whales are fairly intelligent as marine mammals go, but mermaids would be far beyond their level. This no doubt made adaptation to an aquatic environment easier, as their problem-solving skills would have helped them along the way.
- Social Living: Humans, and our ancestors, are/were social animals. If mermaids are real, they probably live in small groups and work together in a social community. Might they construct habitat under the ocean? Who knows, but at the very least they must maintain contact with each other and coordinate their efforts.
- Tool Use: It seems likely that a big-brained primate would utilize tools. Do they construct and use specific tools? If they do, we haven’t found them. At the least, we’d have to assume that, like chimpanzees, they may use objects like rocks or other undersea items as tools.
- Elusive and Rare: The ocean is a dangerous place, and no doubt mermaids would be on the menu for many creatures, just as humans were on the African savannah. They would have learned to hide and stay clear of danger quite well, one would think. This brings up an unlikely comparison to another well-known elusive hominid: Bigfoot. If Bigfoot is able to remain hidden in the woods of North America, what are the chances we would ever find a mermaid in the vastness of the ocean?
- Predatory Behavior: It was food that drove our ancestors close to the ocean, and if AAT is correct it was food that sent them into it. While it’s likely that mermaids may enjoy some ocean veggies, the protein and essential fats from shellfish and other sea life are what AAT points to as the driving force behind brain expansion. They may or may not be taking down large prey, but certainly, we can assume mermaids are catching and eating lobsters, shrimp, clams, mussels, and other easy-to-grab critters.
- Dangerous to Humans: While they wouldn’t likely prey on humans, in the same way you wouldn’t corner an adult chimp or gorilla it is probably wise to avoid a confrontation with a mermaid. Especially in their own environment, one would think they would be more than equipped to quickly dispatch a creature as feeble as a human.
Do Mermaids Really Exist?
Back in 2009, locals in the town of Kiryat Yam, Israel, claimed to see a strange creature offshore in the evening. They described it as having the body of a young girl and the tail of a fish.
The town offered a one-million-dollar reward to anyone who could show concrete evidence of this mermaid, but so far it has gone unclaimed. Was this a real mermaid?
If mermaids are really out there, and Aquatic Ape Theory really does explain their evolution, they probably don’t look much like pretty, young girls. And, they wouldn’t have tails like fish. They would be like any other mammal in the sea: perfectly evolved at the skills necessary to find food, avoid predators, make baby mermaids, and not much else.
Once we put the pieces together we can see that any mermaids that evolved from this set of circumstances would probably be intelligent and adept at defending themselves. They might live in social groups, and they might use tools. They might even be dangerous, as early sailors warned. Unlike in the movies, an encounter with a mermaid may not be a pleasant thing.
In many minds, this makes mermaids even more interesting. An aquatic descendant from the same family tree as humans would, like in the Animal Planet film, turn science on its ear.
Unfortunately, just like in the film, until we have a body it’s all just theory.