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Ladies of the Deep: A Scientific Possibility or Man-Made Fiction?
To where I watch on the yellow sands,
and they pluck sweet music with sea-cold hands.
They bring me coral and amber clear.
But when the stars in heaven appear,
their music ceases, they glide away.
They swim for their grottos across the bay.
Then listen only to my shrill tune,
the surfy tide, and the wondering moon.
-from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
A most prominent and linking role in the culture and history of countless societies is the employment of mythology. Mythologies meet a variety of functions including religion, direction and history. They serve to instill a sense of purpose and worth. The science of creation of a mythology is a delicate and interesting phenomenon. Mythologies usually evolve from the need to explain and explore the unknown. Since the genesis of mankind and the subsequent ability and desire to explore his surroundings, the sea has provided a powerful impetus for the creation of a variety of myths. Our oceans, mystifying and exotic still, are thick with the lore of centuries past.
Decidedly the most captivating mariner legend is that of the race creatures who inhabit the murky and watery depths of the sea, most notably mermaids. The mermaid is found in all Western countries; she is the German Meerfrau, the Icelandic Marmenill, the Danish Maremind, the Irish Merow and many others, and there are echoes of her story from the East as well. The Matsyanaris, figures sometimes found sculptured in Hindu temples, are nymphs with fishes’ tails, and superstitious Chinese sailors firmly believe in the existence of similar creatures in the China sea. (Ashton 125-131). One of the first documentations of these creatures comes from the ancient Greek poet Homer in his rich and classic mythology of the Odyssey. His sea nymphs here, however are a combination of a female and a bird. These sirens would sing so beautifully as to elicit an uncontrollable and magnetic pull to their presence, followed immediately by the definite and utter destruction of life and hull.
Many of the early representations such as this depict mermaids as evil and disgusting creatures, exemplary of the temptations of the flesh. The ultimate role of Siren as seductress was created by Michelangelo in the central image of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where in "The Fall of Man and the Expulsion From Paradise,” a mermaid-like creature with a female body from the waist up and a snake or fish body from the waist down is shown seducing Adam and Eve.
Her role has thenceforth evolved into one of a protectoress of the seas and a patron of those who dare to voyage it. This role is exhibited by the rich art and artifacts portraying her beauty, divinity and unique combination of power yet delicateness. Her likeness can be found on the bow of a variety of ships, serving to cut the swells while leaving good fortune in her wake.
She is an incarnation of the limitless beauties of the sea: her body composed with the mesmerizing iridescence of a scale; she dons the amazing fruits of animate creation—a pearl, a shell; her veil is made of the intricate and beautiful lacing of seaweed; her home—the sensuous and life-giving sea.
Though the history and lore of the mermaid is passionate and intimately intertwined with man’s view of the sea, I am left to wonder if her story retains any validity. An indirect, yet consequential supporter of her existence is an interesting alternate hypothesis of the direction of human evolution from apes. This is known as the Aquatic Ape Theory and successfully attempts to explain some the drastic and nagging differences between humans and all other primates. This theory simultaneously provides the method by which a creative elaboration could substantiate the existence of such a creature.
This theory, first proposed in the 1950s by Sir Alister Hardy, states that around 8 million years ago, human ancestors underwent a semi-aquatic phase (Pickrell). It is universally accepted that humans, chimps and gorillas share a common ancestry, the difficultly lies in explaining why humans exhibit features quite different from our primate relatives.
The most widely held theory, still taught in schools and universities, is that we are descended from apes which moved out of the forests onto the grasslands of the open savannah. The distinctly human features are thus supposed to be adaptations to a savannah environment. In that case, we would expect to find at least some of these adaptations to be paralleled in other savannah mammals. But there is not a single instance of this, not even among species like baboons and vervets, which are descended from forest- dwelling ancestors (Morgan).
The AAT proposes that along our evolutionary route, that nakedness, bipedalism, and other modifications had begun to evolve before reaching the savannah, when the ape and human lines first diverged. These mysterious features of human physiology, though rare or even unique among land mammals, are common in aquatic ones, for this reason, proponents of the AAT believe our ancestors may have lived in a flooded environment for a short span of evolutionary time.
Humans are unique among primates for our near-total bodily hairlessness. In fact, only a handful of the 5,000 or so mammals—mostly semi-aquatic species such as whales, walruses, and hippopotamuses—are not covered in dense fur (Pickrell). There are two types of habitats recognized as the progenitor of “naked” animals. These are a subterranean one or an aquatic one. A hairless subterranean mammal includes the unique naked Somalian mole rat which never ventures above ground. Aquatic mammals include the swimmers, such as dolphins or whales and the wallowers such as hippopotamuses or pigs.
So the question remains, why would our strictly terrestrial predecessors lose their fur? It has been proposed that this feat was accomplished to prevent overheating in the savannah. This is countered by the fact that no other mammal has ever resorted to this strategy. A covering of hair is known to act as a defense against the heat of the sun. This fur curiosity has undergone recent evaluation for its role in the conquering of parasites in humans (Pickrell). This hairlessness would come at a high price because primate infants are carried around clinging to their mothers’ fur; mothers or infants would be at a disadvantage when that became impossible.
“One general conclusion seems undeniable from an overall survey of mammalian species: that while a coat of fur provides the best insulation for land mammals the best insulation in water is not fur, but a layer of fat” (Morgan).
In keeping with the theory, this henceforth explains why humans are by far the fattest primates; we have ten times as many fat cells in our bodies as would be expected in an animal of our size.
There are two kinds of animals which tend to acquire large deposits of fat - hibernating ones and aquatic ones. In hibernating mammals the fat is seasonal; in most aquatic ones, as in humans it is present all the year round. The distribution of fat in aquatic mammals and humans under the skin is similar as land mammals accumulate this fat around internal organs. Clearly, this fatty development would be a negative in the life of a primitive hunter because it would slow him down and at the same time would be a helpful development in an aquatic setting. Another interesting point is that all other primate babies are born slender and is helpful as previously mentioned, because their survival may depend on clinging to the mothers by holding all of their weight with only fingers. Human babies however, are born fat, and therefore buoyant, an important concept when considering a watery birth.
Another vast curiosity is the bipedalism exhibited by humans. We are the only mammals in the world that habitually walk on two legs. It is clear why bipedalism is usually not selected for. It is slower, less stable, and exposes vital organs to attack. In short, it is a difficult process with few benefits…unless you might be an ape in deep water. Pressure is taken off the spine in water and allowed the posture to be more easily accessible and allows the subject to breath and travel at the same time. The only animal which has ever evolved a pelvis like ours, suitable for bipedalism, was the long-extinct Oreopithecus, known as the swamp ape.
The last major difference lies in the uniqueness of the human respiratory system. It is exclusive among land mammals in two ways. It is voluntary, whereas in other land mammals it is likened to the automatic heartbeat. This adaptation appears to be aquatic in nature because the only member of the animal kingdom that exhibits this is a aquatic mammal like seals or whales.
The other human peculiarity is the descended larynx. A land mammal is normally obliged to breathe through its nose most of the time, because its windpipe passes up through the back of the throat and the top end of it (the larynx) is situated in the back of its nasal passages. This means that we can breath through our mouth as easily as our nose and this feature is found only in other divers in the kingdom.
A few other indicators exist. We have millions of sebaceous glands which exude oil over head, face and torso. The chimpanzee's sebaceous glands are described as “vestigial” whereas ours are described as “enormous”. Their purpose is obscure. In other animals the only known function of sebum is that of waterproofing the skin or the fur. Another indication lies in the chemistry of our most unique adaptation, the large brain. The building of brain tissue, unlike other body tissues, is dependent on an adequate supply of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are abundant in the marine food chain but relatively scarce in the land food chain. This may be the reason why our terrestrial primate relatives were unable to develop a similarly sized brain. This likewise may explain our affinity for foods of the sea.
The Aquatic Ape Theory, though exotic and seemingly far-fetched, has not been definitively discounted and provides an interesting approach to explaining the aspects which make our species so unique. Further fossil evidence is needed to validate the claim but it should be acknowledged that skeptics scorned Darwin’s and Wegner’s monumental hypotheses as well. Besides, it allows us to believe that mermaids might exist!
Ashton, J. Curious Creatures in Zoology. Cassel Publishing, London 1890
The History of the Mermaid and the role of Mermaids and Sirens as Symbols of Transformation. Northstar Gallery. http://northstargallery.com/mermaids/MermaidHistory.htm
Morgan, E. Aquatic Ape Theory pamphlet. http://www.primitivism.com/aquaticape.htm
Pickrell, J. National Geographic. “Are Humans Furless to Thwart Parasites?”. 06-13-2003.
Roede, M., Wind, J., Patrick, J., Reynolds, V.. The Aquatic Ape: Fact or Fiction? Published by Souvenir Press. (1991)
Shakespere, W. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. http://www-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/midsummer/full.html
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