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Aquatic Ape Theory: Could Mermaids Really Exist?

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With interests in science and nature, the author explores topics from a unique and sometimes controversial perspective.

Does Aquatic Ape Theory Explain How Mermaids Really Exist?

Does Aquatic Ape Theory Explain How Mermaids Really Exist?

The Mermaid Legend

Mermaids have fascinated us humans for a long time. A few hundred years ago, the myth of beautiful semi-human women living beneath the sea was 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.

They depicted most mermaids 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 brought bad news in the form of shipwrecks, death by drowning, and storms. Even pirates feared 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 sailors who had been out on the ocean too long, away from women or any other civilization.

Some cite the manatee as a possible culprit when it comes to animals that 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 mermaid 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 into 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.

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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.

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.
Could mermaids have evolved from land ancestors to become marine mammals, just like whales and dolphins?

Could mermaids have evolved from land ancestors to become marine mammals, just like whales and dolphins?

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.

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 a 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.
Real mermaids may not be the beautiful creatures we've come to expect.

Real mermaids may not be the beautiful creatures we've come to expect.

Mermaid Sightings

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.

The Mermaid Poll

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


dave schulz on January 20, 2020:

William don't know where you got that idea. If you show harm of course that may happen, that sure happens with sasquatch. In their own rights they are a beautiful god created beings just as the sasquatch. Respect is key here. dave

william c otto on January 18, 2020:

i know this creatures found themselves bound to the depths of the sea,far away from any wicked,some people are denying the right to observe them,you must not deliver a gospel about that creature, it's bad-luck

dave schulz on January 16, 2020:

I think they exist, have seen a few pictures of dead ones and heard a story of a alive merman on the other side of Vancouver island. dave

mama on November 17, 2019:

oh jeez I'm not sure if they really exist but wth the little idea of what I know abt mermaids, I think they are real.

marc verhaegen on March 27, 2019:

For a scientific update of the Littoral Theory of human evolution (more accurate term than "aquatic ape"), please google "coastal dispersal 2019 Verhaegen".

Xiomara Alejandre on January 07, 2019:

we may know a lot about planets land animals and sea creatures but we don't know much about mythical creatures even if their was someone out there who knows about mythical creatures that might not mean that we have to listen to what he discovered maybe if that person knows it would be better if we found out ourselves. like a quote says "take it from someone who doesn't know much rather than someone who is wise" by Xiomara Alejandre. "Take it from someone who believes rather then a person who doesn't believe" by Xiomara Alejandre and in case your asking yes I did make that quote I even bet my life that I made the quote but don't come chasing after I really want to be a poet or a quote artist ;)

kenneth e allbee on June 25, 2018:

mermaids do really exist

Ed Kwasnick on March 25, 2018:

We know far more about the moon than we know about our oceans. We constantly discover species of fish thought to be extinct. Maybe we have just not yet discovered a mermaid.

cryptid (author) from USA on November 08, 2017:

Thanks for the kind words, Blandina. Unfortunately that's the best I can do on author info. There is plenty of info out there on aquatic ape theory, though. Good luck with your presentation!

Blandina on November 07, 2017:

I really like your article, I wish I could use this for a presentation of these theory's , I would like to use you as a source , however there's not enough information about the author.

GGlove84 on July 07, 2017:

I'm sorry but the evidence is there. If you believed everything the Goverment tells you, then I feel sorry for you. The Danish National museum actually has a real mermaid skeleton for people to see. Also, are many fossils barrier that were found by archiologists. The natives and Egyptians made ancient cave paintings of mermaids. All of the explorers documented seeing mermaids. People nowadays have seen them, but they are fast sea creatures impossible to trap. Finally, 95% of the ocean is undiscovered, so instead of discovering new planets or going to the moon, we should be learning more about out oceans, flat earth, saving dangered species. Don't get me started on the underground cities, reptilians, mind control, human and animal experimentation, Area 51, ect that the gov deny.

Me on February 08, 2017:

well they honestly could exist we as humans haven't discovered all of the more than 50% of the oceans, so i believe they exist. Also, you did an amazing job on the article

cryptid (author) from USA on December 26, 2016:

@someone: The Animal Planet show was not a real documentary; however, it did present some interesting theories on how mermaids might exist, if they do.

someone on December 25, 2016:

I watched the documentary from animal planet. In that story they found a body, is this a real one or just a fake one to make the theory more thrustworthy? Because I'm just not sure.

cryptid (author) from USA on July 18, 2016:

@Malak: Presumably mermaids would give birth to live young in a similar way as other marine mammals.

Malak on July 16, 2016:

This is really interesting good job xoxox

Btw someone knows how do mermaids give birth ??????

Anomynous on July 02, 2016:

Evolution doesn't exist. Mermaids don't exist.

davante on February 29, 2016:

I believe it. We only discovered 15% or so of the wirlds species. I makes to much sense. Sea levels rising, vast oceans that havent been fully explored. We thought the Kraken was fake... giant squid pops up. Maybe they arent pretty but adapting to the ocean they pribably would be bluish or grey. Communicate with sonar or something like whales. Swim fast have big black eyes to see underwater and be extremely strong especially on land. Holding their breathe for long periods of time. Maybe they are simewhere in the bermuda triangle or antartica, you never know but i wouldnt say its not real. Science is great but sucks if you dont have evidence. I believe in mernaids just as much as i believe in aliens

HI on February 02, 2016:


Chelsea on August 27, 2015:

What if mermaids are on the top of the food chain? Imagine, humans became the top of the food chain because of our intelligence with weapons, etc. What if mermaids were able to reach our same level? Surely an interesting thought.

Shandiin on June 11, 2015:

Mermaids are really real and special to the world

Subham Roy on May 26, 2015:

Yaa its really verymuch Interesting.

Anything in this world is possible.And I think people should Investigate there...

And Oceans are too vast As More vast than land.

cryptid (author) from USA on May 21, 2015:

Thanks nathalia. I'm not sure I believe mermaids exist either, but I do think the Aquatic Ape hypothesis is interesting on several levels.

Nancy on May 20, 2015:

I like your article on mermaid although I don't believe that they exist.

Prince Bethel from Africa on February 06, 2015:

I believe mermaids exist. I know there is a different world under the sea, as big as the normal terrestrial world. They live like normal humans, buy and sell, get married, and even visit our own plane to make friends with humans. Nice hub, so interesting!

cart1234 on January 22, 2015:

A great read,loved the meg article I don't go in Tue ocean But love the thought that if meg h nted like a great white,and they can jump out the water up to 6 ft imatine what meg could

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on November 13, 2014:

I would assume that these animals are not dangerous to mermaids, unless mermaids threaten them. Same is true on land. Dolphins, especially, are always friends to mermaids in the old stories. I can easily see them fishing together, playing together, mermaids even helping sick dolphins get well - sewing up deep cuts, etc.

cryptid (author) from USA on November 13, 2014:

Hi Siphiwe. We have to assume mermaids would have developed strategies to evade predators, just as other medium-sized marine mammals have, and just has early humans did on the savanna. Some of the them surely do not escape from sharks, etc!

SIPHIWE THEMBA on November 12, 2014:

this is interesting but i would like to know how do they survive or live in water with dangerous fishes like; Sharks and Dolphines

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on October 07, 2014:

I also think that's possible, vineliner. Plus we're polluting the shores and waters close to shore so much that it must not be tenable anymore for mermaids to live close to humans.

cryptid (author) from USA on October 07, 2014:

Could be, vineliner. Certainly if mermaids do exist they must have adapted in some way that makes them very rare to the human eye.

Hal Gall from Bloomington, IN on October 06, 2014:

I recently read an article saying the reason why the mermaid sightings are so rare is that they have moved to deeper waters due to being hunted. Don't know if that is true, but it seems plausible.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on October 05, 2014:

there are a lot of mermaid sightings but not proven yet

cryptid (author) from USA on October 05, 2014:

Interesting thoughts, watergeek. I agree we need to see serious evidence to accept such an outlandish idea. However, in itself Aquatic Ape Theory is fascinating to ponder in regard to human evolution. Thanks for your comment!

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on October 05, 2014:

It's funny how many of us who write about mermaids use that drawing of the mermaid combing her hair. It's certainly alluring, isn't it? I agree that if mermaids still exist, they must be intelligent. I also agree that we won't know for sure until we see actual evidence - humans are like that. But I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss the possibility outright, until we've explored more than just the 5% of the ocean that the NOAA says we have.

cryptid (author) from USA on October 03, 2014:

Thanks for the kind comments, everyone. Yes, unfortunately the documentary was a hoax, but I still give them credit for coming up with an interesting theory.

rls8994 from Mississippi on October 03, 2014:

This was such an interesting hub to read. I watched that documentary as well and then found out it was a hoax which was disappointing. I think it is certainly possible that creatures such as this exist. Maybe one day we will know for sure :)

Chauncey St Clair from New York City on October 02, 2014:

I saw the documentary a couple of years ago and found it very interesting. I liked the "furthering" of a Darwinian concept. I don't see why we should write off the aquatic ape theory. What if it's already happening as we speak and we are several million years away from it becoming a reality.

Great article, thanks for writing it!

Carissa from ky on October 02, 2014:

I watched that one document not too long ago... it gave me the creeps. But I was fascinated

Anthony Altorenna from Connecticut on October 02, 2014:

Mermaids are real. Well, not the sirens that lured ships into the rocks but the sailors of yore thought they saw something. So whatever 'it' was, it was real enough to them.

But no, there are no real mermaids.

cryptid (author) from USA on September 21, 2014:

They're not, coolcat . . . yet.

coolcatkidd on September 19, 2014:

Why are mermaids a big. Problem

cryptid (author) from USA on September 11, 2014:

Careful, Charly. People who say things like that often later end up saying things like, "I never believed in Mermaids until the day when . . . " :-)

Charly on September 10, 2014:

Mermaids, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, blah, blah, blah. Don't exist. All just books, stories, cartoons and movies to keep us entertained and we're entertained alright. Thoroughly.

wonder on September 02, 2014:

Well, if we have not found it out yet... I think it won't happen ?? Crystal skulls are real. But we have not found crystal boddies...

cryptid (author) from USA on September 01, 2014:

Thanks Robert. What a life indeed! I suspect any aquatic human ancestors didn't have it so easy though.

robertzimmerman2 on August 31, 2014:

Interesting read and it made me think of the Japanese monkeys that sit in the hot springs all the time. What a life!

Alan from West Georgia on August 07, 2014:

This is very interesting, there are many things that humans have left to discover. Maybe one day someone can actually confirm the existence of these mystical creatures.

cryptid (author) from USA on July 22, 2014:

Great points, Lindani!

lindani kumalo from jo'burg on July 22, 2014:

i too believe that perhaps there is more to creation than what we know presently, as for the controversy of whether the species should or shouldn't be discovered, i think that the aquatic apes may be an endangered species, imagine the amount toxicity the air has on human health, how much more devastation could our technologies have on these creature if left unattended, i am thinking of cause about all the oil spills, rubbish dumping and unattended fish traps the world over, here in South Africa for example, about twenty tonnes of debris of worn down vessels is dumps in the oceans annually, i think they should be protected like the rhinos and the like

troutflytim on July 02, 2014:

Bigfoot is real and I've seen one. Our egocentric view that we know all there is to know about this planet will slowly shrink as does the space on it will see the proof soon.

mbuggieh on June 10, 2014:

Yes---the entire "documentary" was a hoax; a total fabrication.

cryptid (author) from USA on June 10, 2014:

Hi Dango. Unfortunately, I think most of that evidence was fabricated for the Animal Planet documentary.

Dango on June 09, 2014:

There has been artifacts pulled from fish out of nets, look like ancient spears. There was a body recovered from a military sonar testing that some scientists found, but come later the government confiscated body saying it was contaminated with human dna.

dynamite on March 01, 2014:

i prefer the megalodon

cryptid (author) from USA on February 02, 2014:

Thanks satari6122. It is interesting to wonder what might really be out there!

satari6122 on February 01, 2014:

I love this. It's great, and I do believe that mermaids, along with other mythical creatures, do exist. Lovely article. x

Smart girl 101 on October 14, 2013:

Exactly we only descoverd 1.8 percent of the ocean

Hercules Rockafeller on October 14, 2013:

I only have 1 problem...our oceans are NOT well explored, in fact, it is the complete opposite. We have explored more of the moon than our oceans. Other than that, good read.

cryptid (author) from USA on August 06, 2013:

Thanks skperdon! I sure do love the mystery of it all! You have some fascinating ideas yourself there.

skperdon from Canada on August 06, 2013:

Interesting hub Crytid! I've always loved fantasy stories especially the beautiful ones and have often wondered whether they stem from real creatures long ago.

Maybe some of these creatures were created by science experiments. I have also watched documentaries that unravel myths of yore, I have also seen documentaries of the wonder stories of the Hindu Gods, the present speculations are that these were alien beings that visited earth a long time ago.

Similar to speculations that the pyramids were built by aliens a long time ago.

Don't you just love the mystery of it all?

Swinter12 from Earth on August 04, 2013:

I had never heard of this before...truly interesting!

cryptid (author) from USA on June 08, 2013:

Possibly, John, but hopefully not all of them!

john on June 07, 2013:

mermaids got eatan by megaladon

cryptid (author) from USA on November 20, 2012:

I agree about the fish tank thing, Qudsia. On the other hand, if they are out there part of me sure would like to know!

QudsiaP1 on November 20, 2012:

Cryptid, I watched that animal planet session where they talked about it. I was absolutely amazed by it and why not? Surely there is more to heaven and earth than we know of and much like the ending of the documentary; I would much rather prefer mermaids remain a mystery than become ornaments of huge fish tanks and circuses.

cryptid (author) from USA on November 20, 2012:

Thanks stclairjack!

Stclairjack from middle of freekin nowhere,... the sticks on November 20, 2012:

well done!

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