I will be the first to admit that my swimming skills are mediocre at best. I am certainly no Aquaman; I’m lucky to swim half a mile in the ocean. The only thing I like about beach vacations are the warm Jacuzzis. Yet, when I look at other mammals, I notice humans’ swimming skills are amongst the best. This prompted me to do some research on the human body, and I found some interesting traits.
Humans are among the few mammals that have babies that can float and swim. Most non-diving mammals have to train their young for years to do these things, but humans can be in and around water from a very young age.
Humans also have less hair and more fat than many primates and land mammals. Our lack of hair lets us swim farther by reducing friction, which impedes movement. We are also the fattest of the primates, with a layer of subcutaneous fat bonded to our skin. Marine mammals like dolphins and whales share both of these traits.
The most interesting human quality in relation to swimming is our ability to voluntarily control our breathing. Diving mammals have this ability, but no terrestrial mammal does except for humans.
All of this proves that humans can swim, but so what? What makes this ability truly weird is what this truth could have meant as humans continued to evolve around 900,000 years ago.
Archaeological evidence suggests that around 898,000 BC, certain primates made it from the Indonesian island of Bali to Florence, Italy. The sea levels were lower at this time, but the distance between these two islands was still at least 12 miles. One may think that the primates at the time made boats to traverse the path, but there is no evidence to support this. This could potentially mean that these primates swam the 12 miles from island to island.
This alone is not very interesting, but what if these primates were the ones to eventually become humans? Anthropologist P. Tobias from South Africa developed an interesting theory regarding human evolution based on this concept.
Tobias reasoned that there was a moment, around 1 million years ago, at which certain primates realized the seas were the new frontier. Rather than fighting in the dense forests for resources amongst other primates, they turned to the oceans – and swimming. They traveled many miles and took advantage of the untapped resource of the seas. These primates that conquered the land and the sea eventually transformed into the humans we are today, and this explains our many aquatic features.
Who would have thought that part of our biology is more marine than anything else? We all have a decent amount of Aquaman in us. Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Maybe that driving force is the reason man exists today. Perhaps from now on I will do more swimming, and less Jacuzzi relaxing.