Sunday, February 22, 2009


A house by the sea is a common dream. But in it? Surely that's only for James Bond baddies. Not so... an article by Murad Ahmed

Once the preserve of Bond villains, “semi-submerged environments”, or aquabases, to give them a more memorable name, are the latest projects being addressed by architects.

– These are homes that float on water, but with a submerged basement that can give you a great view of the ocean floor.

– One example is the Trilobis 65, designed by Giancarlo Zema. This amphibious home has four levels, half of which are a few metres underwater, and it can house a family of six. In fact, it’s a form of boat and can move at seven knots, although criminal masterminds may find it is not suited to making a quick getaway.

[DD: The dock reminds me a a floating dome I designed earlier. Don't take the trilobis near coral or rocky reefs in heavy surf!]

– Even more ambitious are the designs of Vincent Callebaut. His Lilypad is a floating eco-town that can accommodate 50,000 people. Self-sufficient, it runs on renewable energy and has a central freshwater lagoon that collects and purifies rain water. Huge shopping malls come built in as standard.

Comment: There's much more info available on this topic. Look up for instance "The Seasteading Book," a detailed online text about how to move beyond far-out utopian projects into something practical. Seasteading presents a new possibility for building a free society while socialism eats the West. Comment by Kris, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA

home offshore? Not for me, thanks, I like trees and sandy beaches. Maybe an island anchored to a seamount, with sliding dome cover for typhoons, with beach and coconut palms and lagoon and freshwater waterfall?

Water & Human Evolution

SOUTH AFRICA'S FAMOUS fossil apeman sites - Taung near Kimberley,
Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai near Krugersdorp, and Makapansgat
near Pietersburg - are situated in what is today the dry hinterland of the
subcontinent. So is the Olduvai Gorge on the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania,
Koobi Fora in the north and north-east of Kenya, and Bahr-el-Ghazal in the
Chad Republic in the Sahara Desert.
Yet, wherever the early members of the human family were evolving, they
needed water to drink and to keep cool. Proximity to water was the most
important factor in the location of an evolving group like the early
hominids. They must have lived near springs, rivers, lakes and freshwater
estuaries. Denied water in warm, tropical or sub-tropical climates, humans
quickly become dehydrated and death may follow in days. Water is necessary
for survival and an essential ingredient for evolutionary change.

Water and human dispersal
Water helped distribute humans across the planet, along seashores, lakes and
river banks. This would have accounted for the prehistoric peopling of most
of the Old World, from Africa to Europe and mainland Asia. Strolling or
swimming along the beach would have been sufficient to carry mankind from
the Horn of Africa to the Peloponnesos of Greece, from the Levant to the
Korean Peninsula, from Singapore to Siberia. When much water was bound up on
land as glaciers in the Ice Ages, sea levels were lower than they are today,
and previously submerged land-bridges appeared, helping spread humans to new
parts of the earth. At such times, it would have been possible to walk
dryshod from Tripoli and Tunisia to Malta and Sicily, from South Korea to
South Japan and from the Sakhalin Peninsula to Hokkaido, North Japan, from
Malaysia to Sumatra, Java and Bali and from Siberia to Alaska over the
500km-wide land connection called Beringia.
At some stages and in some places, humans learned to cross the water, even
without a land-bridge. Java and Bali were periodically connected to the
Asian mainland, so that animals, including humans, could easily cross to
them. However, the Indonesian island of Flores could be reached only by sea
crossings even when the sea level was lowest. Yet stone tools and fossil
bones on Flores show that humans (probably Homo erectus) and archaic
elephants (Stegodon) must have crossed this 19km-wide, deep oceanic channel
900 000 to 800 000 years ago. There is no evidence that they knew how to
make boats so early. Either they floated across using tree trunks and logs
as rafts, or they swam.
Another deep oceanic channel - the Strait of Gibraltar - lies between Ceuta
and Morocco in North Africa and Gibraltar and Spain. The strait today is
about 13 km at its narrowest point but when the sea-levels of the Atlantic
and Mediterranean were lower, the distance across was smaller and a few
islands (presently under water) would have appeared. The greatest sea
crossing then would have been only five kilometres. Stone tools and probable
fossil hominid remains between 1.5 and one million years old have been found
in south-eastern Spain near the village of Orce and the city of Murcia. For
a long time, the question has been: how did these earliest Europeans get to
the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa? There are two fairly obvious
overland routes ­ one through the Middle East across Suez and the Levant,
and one from Tripoli, via Malta, Sicily, the Strait of Messina to Calabria,
the toe of Italy. To get to the south of Spain from either of these two
passages would have involved taking the long way round, including the
crossing of the Pyrenees in a southerly direction. Several of us have been
pursuing the option of the short cut ­ the water traverse from Ceuta to
Spain. If people and elephants could get across a wider channel to get to
Flores just under a million years ago, I believe it is very likely that the
smaller water crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar would have been within
human capacity just over a million years ago. Again, floating, rafting on
flotsam and possibly even swimming seem to have been early acquisitions in
human cultural and behavioural evolution. Boats are technologically advanced
inventions which probably came much later.
These are details. The principle remains that water must have played a
crucial role in the distribution of humanity across the planet.

Semi-aquatic human ancestors?

The third way in which water is thought by some to have affected human
evolution is a nearly 40-year-old proposal, the Aquatic Ape Theory (AAT),
which holds that mankind evolved some of its distinctive features in an
aquatic environment and that ancient human ancestors spent more time in the
water than present-day descendants. As Graeme Addison explained in Out There
(January 1998), Sir Alister Hardy put forward the idea that man was more
aquatic in the past, following Max Westenhöfer's 1923 proposal that some
modern human anatomical features indicate an aquatic form of adaptation.
The idea was largely ignored by Hardy's contemporaries. There are two ways
in which a new idea in science is rejected: one is by direct confrontation
and attempts to refute it; the other is by turning a blind eye to it and
hoping that it will simply go away.
Among those who opposed the AAT, some pointed out that there were no fossils
to support it. One is tempted to ask what sort of fossils did they expect?
Those fossils already discovered in South and East Africa, four to three
million years old, show signs that they belonged to erect bipedal hominids.
One of the things the AAT proposed was that the early hominids developed
uprightness to hold the head above water while wading. Claiming that
water-adapted fossils had not been found, amounts to a circular argument
when the theory of water-adaptedness purported to explain the very erectness
of those fossil skeletons that had been found!
When a new idea is rejected, it is frequently because it flies in the face
of an accepted prevailing paradigm, in this case the Savannah Hypothesis

The Savannah Hypothesis
From 1925 to 1995 almost everyone grew up on the "received wisdom" that the
Hominidae (the family of mankind) was born on the savannah, believed to have
been the ideal crucible in which the strange form of locomotion known as
bipedalism came into being. The idea is an old one. Robert Broom, in his
1933 book The Coming of Man: was it Accident or Design? stated: "Before
Australopithecus was discovered some of us believed that the ancestor of man
would be found in an anthropoid ape which had left the forest and taken to
living on the plains and among the rocks; and here (in Australopithecus, the
Taung child) we have just such a form."
Raymond Dart's 1925 paper, that announced the features of the little fossil
child from Taung, included this passage: "For the production of man a
different apprenticeship was needed to sharpen the wits and quicken the
higher manifestations of intellect ­ a more open veldt country where
competition was keener between swiftness and stealth, and where adroitness
of thinking and movement played a preponderating role in the preservation of
the species... in my opinion, Southern Africa, by providing a vast open
country with occasional wooded belts and a relative scarcity of water,
together with a fierce and bitter mammalian competition, furnished a
laboratory such as was essential to this penultimate phase of human
evolution." (Emphasis mine)
From the animal remains found with the Australopithecus child, Broom (1933)
wrote, "... we can safely infer that the rainfall was then, as now, scanty,
and that there were no forests in that region, only grassy and bushy plains
from which the hills and krantzes arose."
My generation grew up steeped in what more recently has been called the
Savannah Hypothesis. As Elaine Morgan has chronicled in her book, The
Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997), this view was supported, directly or
indirectly, by numerous scholars, including Sherwood Washburn, Kenneth
Oakley, Richard Leakey, Peter Wheeler, Alan Walker. It was a paradigm that
lasted for about 70 years of this century.
In 1980, the Africanist archaeologist J. Desmond Clark put forward a
modified version of SH which favoured a mixed ecology. He said "there is
little doubt that proto-hominids (ancestors of hominids) were widely
distributed throughout the tropical savannahs. It seems certain that it was
within habitats consisting of mosaics of grassland, woodland, and forest
that the hominid line first became differentiated from that of the pongids
(the apes)." Clark singled out not only the great richness and diversity of
plant and animal resources in the savannahs compared with the forest, and
the fragmentation of the forest cover during the later Miocene-early
Pliocene, which isolated some hominid populations, but also the progressive
expansion of grasslands from that time onward, which made available "empty
niches" into which hominids could expand. These factors, he believed, "can
be expected to have led to a number of adaptations".
In 1985, Elisabeth Vrba suggested that the family of man was probably a
"founder member" of the African savannah fauna! That year, I published a
chapter called "The conquest of the savannah and the attaining of erect
bipedalism" in which I expressed the old idea: "The living apes of Africa
are to be found exclusively in the wet forest of the middle reaches of the
continent. It is likely that ancestral apes, too, were forest-dwelling
creatures...The spread of lighter woodland and savannah and the retreat of
the margins of the primaeval forests could well have created conditions in
which the tendency to uprightness and bipedalism was favoured. The ability
to run across the high grass cover of the savannah, perhaps from one
woodland-girt stream to another, might have held advantages for those apes
which could 'walk tall'. Uprightness gave its possessors a chance to see
over the tall grass and to watch out for predatory enemies like the lions
and sabre-toothed big cats. Seemingly it was under just such a set of
conditions that the Hominidae made their appearance upon the face of the
That statement may well be the quintessence of the SH - and I believe it was
my last statement in support of it. By 1995, when I gave the Daryll Forde
Memorial Lecture at University College, London, I stated of the SH, "We were
all profoundly and unutterably wrong!"

Repudiation of the Savannah Hypothesis
My disavowal of SH was based in the first place on evidence which had been
coming forth from excavations in South and East Africa. From Sterkfontein,
suggestions of greater woodland cover at the time when Australopithecus was
deposited in Member 4, had emerged from studies on fossil pollen, but these
were not compelling. Then Wits team member Marian Bamford identified fossil
vines or lianas of Dichapetalum in the same Member 4: such vines hang from
forest trees and would not be expected in open savannah. The team at
Makapansgat found floral and faunal evidence that the layers containing
Australopithecus reflected forest or forest margin conditions. From Hadar,
in Ethiopia, where "Lucy" was found, and from Aramis in Ethiopia, where Tim
White's team found Ardipithecus ramidus, possibly the oldest hominid ever
discovered, well-wooded and even forested conditions were inferred from the
fauna accompanying the hominid fossils.
All the fossil evidence adds up to the small-brained, bipedal hominids of
four to 2.5 million years ago having lived in a woodland or forest niche,
not savannah. The evidence for the presence of big forest trees supports the
idea we had gleaned from the bones of "Little Foot" that tree-climbing had
been a part of the lifeways of these early African hominids. At least, one
could conclude, there had been trees big enough to bear the weight of the
Australopithecines (for which stunted acacias of the savannah would have
been unsuitable).
To a large London audience in 1995 I said: "All the former savannah
supporters (including myself) must now swallow our earlier words in the
light of the new results from the early hominid deposits... Of course, if
savannah is eliminated as a primary cause, or selective advantage of
bipedalism, then we are back to square one."

Humans are not savannah-adapted animals
In rejecting the SH, I was moved primarily by the evidence unearthed in
South Africa and East Africa. Meanwhile, Elaine Morgan had been piecing
together a number of other arguments against the SH, based on some
anatomical, biochemical and physiological data of modern humans, much of
which was collected by Belgium's Dr Marc Verhaegen, which contrast sharply
with the traits in present-day animals that are truly adapted to savannah
As examples, modern humans lack sun-reflecting fur and are virtually
hairless. The cooling system in our skin is quite unfit for hot, dry,
exposed environments: we have numerous sweat glands and we waste water and
sodium - not very suitable for life on the savannah. Our ability to
concentrate our urine is poor and too low and if ever our earliest ancestors
were savannah dwellers, we must have been the worst, the most profligate
urinators there.
Adapted savannah-dwellers need to drink more water at a time, but most
humans are not able to drink much at a time. The quantity of our
subcutaneous fat, which would insulate us against heat loss, is never found
in truly savannah-adapted animals.
In our bodily functions, chemistry and microscopical anatomy, we should be
hopeless as savannah-dwellers. So Marc Verhaegen and Elaine Morgan, in her
remarkable book, The Scars of Evolution, came to the same conclusion that we
had reached from quite different lines of evidence: the old Savannah
Hypothesis was not tenable. All former savannah supporters must recant ­ and
this I did in London. It was an exciting moment - living through a change of
Max Planck, the German physicist and Nobel laureate, once wrote these words
on the replacement of an outworn paradigm: "A new scientific truth does not
triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but
rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows that
is familiar with it."
That must be one of the masterpieces of cynicism on the scientific process.
Paradigm changes, I like to think, flow overwhelmingly from new evidence
and, where the evidence is sound and even irresistible, they should be
embraced just as lief by the old as by the young. It was three weeks after
my 17th birthday and I went on to declare, "A change of paradigm shakes us
up; it rejuvenates us; and, this above all, it prevents mental
fossilisation - and that is good for all of us."

What the demise of the SH means for the AAT
My formal slaying of the SH removed a key objection to the AAT. Supporters
of the Hardy-Morgan concept hailed this event as my espousal of the aquatic
ape hypothesis. This was not strictly correct for there were other theories
on the “primary causes” of bipedalism, though, to my knowledge, there was
none to explain those physiological and biochemical aspects which seemed to
ally us to marine mammals. Now, at least, anthropologists should be able to
examine this with a more open mind than previously when the thinking of so
many was clouded by the SH.
It seems, however, that the name Aquatic Ape Theory has become a handicap.
For nearly 40 years since Hardy first put the idea forward, AAT has been a
bit of a joke to many scientists, conjuring up visions of a creature that
spent all - or almost all - of its time in the water. Yet Hardy's original
1960 article was modestly entitled, "Was man more aquatic in the past?" In
scientific writing a name can send very misleading messages and the term
"Aquatic Ape" does just that. Replace it with something else, I urged Elaine
Morgan. Then, I think the implications of those apparently water-adapted
features like humans' loss of hair will receive less cynical attention from
those who have hitherto smirked at the mere mention of "The Aquatic Ape"!
At the Dual Congress at Sun City in 1998, Marc Verhaegen and Pierre-François
Puech of France summed the evidence that hominid evolution did not begin in
warm and dry, but in warm and wet conditions. This included new thinking on
what one can infer from the micro-wear on the teeth as to the food of early
hominids: they found signs of marshland plants, molluscs, aquatic herbs.
Dr Michael Crawford of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition,
London, Dr L Broadhurst of the USA., and other collaborators presented an
unexpected and fascinating study. In his book The Driving Force: Food,
Evolution and the Future (1989), Crawford explores many issues around "the
land-water interface". To develop the large brain characteristic of the
hominids, a chemical known as DHA was necessary. The lack of DHA in savannah
food may explain the "degenerative evolution" of the brains of savannah
species and the reason why Homo sapiens could not have evolved on the
savannahs. The marine food chain, on the other hand, has an abundant supply
of DHA. Early hominids had to make use of the marine food chain to enable
the evolution of brain and brain size to keep pace with body size. Their
claim that the human brain depended on the marine food chain suggests
independent evidence in support of the importance of water in human
In the face of all this evidence, old and new, it is time for human
evolutionists to open their minds and give fair and objective thought to the
role of water in the evolution of mankind. We need a new holistic emphasis
on water: first for drinking, secondly as a source of food from aquatic
plants and animals and, thirdly, as waterways facilitating - or impeding -
the spread of humanity across the globe. Fourthly, we may no longer shy away
from the questions posed by those especial features of the human skin,
sweat-glands, chemistry of sweat, body temperature control and fluctuations,
heat and radiation tolerance and water consumption, which in modern humans
appear so different from those of savannah-adapted mammals and so
reminiscent, in some cases, of aquatic mammals.
As the Savannah Hypothesis still held sway when the Valkenburg Conference on
AAT took place 11 years ago, many arguments raised at that meeting are no
longer tenable. Another international forum should be set up to explore the
whole question in the light of the demise of the SH - but please, let it be
under a different name! Tobias, Paleoanthropologist


Knud Munk said...

I agree that there is a strong argument for a new multi-disciplinary conference to reassess the AAT drawing also a new insights from neuro-economics.

"the Dude" said...

Would you like to explain the insights on neuro-economics? Not clear what you mean.