“Born to Swim”
by Sushma Subramanian
Hakai, March 26, 2019
I’m reaching out to see if you might be interested in a magazine feature on the idea that humans may be “born to swim.”
Erika Schagatay and Erik Abrahamsson, both scientists from Sweden, are planning on going to Indonesia to study the Bajau Laut, a community of people who live as sea nomads. They’re a dwindling group of Malay origin that have lived for centuries along coastlines and survive by swimming and diving to find food. Lately, many members have been forced to live increasingly on land because large-scale fishing techniques such as fertilizer bombs and potassium cyanide have damaged marine ecosystems. But there are still hundreds continuing to live as they always have. I have funding from the Genetics and Behavior Journalism Fellowship for travel to go observe this research.
Schagatay and Abrahamsson believe the Bajau Laut hold the key to understanding the potential we all have to be excellent swimmers, a remnant of our evolutionary past. Their research involves measuring how deep members of the community can dive and for how long. The Bajau’s diving techniques are very different from that of free divers because they spend a good amount of their time actively searching for food, not just swimming as far downward as possible. They’re also looking at physiological adaptations such as the size of their spleens and lungs and their ability to see underwater.
The idea that humans have adapted to the waterside in such an extreme way is controversial. Often, it’s equated with the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, which says that we diverged from our primate ancestors because of our move into the water. But Schagatay and Abrahamsson are proposing something much more modest. It’s possible that there were bottlenecks in the history of anatomically modern humans when waterside living became important for survival, and it was necessary to develop the skills for it. We’re now learning that marine resources have been exploited for much longer in human history than previously acknowledged.
My story would follow my travels with the researchers observing the Bajau, which I would intersperse with the science of human swimming and diving, along with anthropological evidence for humans’ connection to coastal environments. I look forward to hearing what you think.
All the best,