Elaine Morgan: Debt of gratitude

Chris Knight remembers the woman who saw off the ‘savanna hypothesis’

Elaine Morgan died on July 12, aged 92. Until she became too frail to travel from her home in Wales, she was one of the Radical Anthropology Group’s most welcome visiting lecturers and on these and other occasions we became good friends.

Those familiar with my book, Blood relations: menstruation and the origins of culture, may recall that I devoted a whole chapter (‘The shores of Eden’) to Elaine Morgan’s insights and speculations concerning early human origins. Elaine pointed to the need to avoid drowning - to wade and swim on encountering deep water - as a key factor triggering the initial evolution of bipedalism in our hominin ancestors. Since no-one else seemed to have a better theory, I long ago thought the idea worth exploring and eventually became more or less convinced.

Unfortunately, Elaine chose to describe our distant hominin ancestors as ‘aquatic apes’. Her parallels between evolving humans and aquatic mammals, such as dolphins, encouraged her opponents to make fun of the whole idea, denouncing it as amateurish nonsense. But in fact Elaine’s basic point has turned out to be correct. In all her best-selling books, her target was the ‘savanna hypothesis’, according to which early humans diverged from their ape cousins by moving out from their former forest environments to stride as hunters across the hot, dry African savannah. Elaine pointed out that this theory simply did not work.

Today, most of the palaeoanthropological establishment stands implacably opposed to Elaine Morgan’s supposedly ‘feminist’, ‘wet’ and in other ways heretical ideas. Newcomers to these discussions might be forgiven for thinking that, among qualified scientists at least, the debate is now closed. But in fact, while organised academia has tended to close ranks against her, some of the world’s best known scientific figures readily acclaim Elaine’s courageous contribution to science. In a nutshell, it was Elaine Morgan, more than anyone else, who consigned the ‘savanna ape’ theory to the dustbin of history.

Our Pliocene hominin ancestors, it is now known, did not live out on the hot, dry African savanna. Palaeoclimatic reconstructions suggest something quite different: a rift valley ecosystem of woodlands along river banks, lake shores, streams and estuaries. Before they were efficient bipeds, our ancestors spent much of the time climbing trees. Almost certainly, they would have spent the night up in trees for reasons of safety. So the most likely picture is that these hominins were well adapted for tree climbing, for running or walking along dry ground between clumps of trees - and also for wading across water and, where necessary, swimming. The need to avoid drowning while crossing a river or falling into water from an overhanging branch would have acted as a powerful selection pressure. Walking upright on two legs was frequently favoured because our ancestors needed to keep their heads above water.

If you think no proper scientist supports Elaine’s theories, think again. Strong public endorsements have come from biologist Desmond Morris, evolutionary nutritionist Michael Crawford and naturalist David Attenborough, among other well-known figures. The philosopher, Daniel Dennett, observes: “During the last few years, when I have found myself in the company of distinguished biologists, evolutionary theorists, palaeoanthropologists and other experts, I have often asked them just to tell me, please, exactly why Elaine Morgan must be wrong about the aquatic theory. I haven’t yet had a reply worth mentioning.”

Until his death in 2012, Philip Tobias was the world’s most senior palaeoanthropologist, renowned for his work in exposing the ‘Piltdown man’ forgery in 1953. In 1995, Tobias gave the prestigious Daryll Forde Memorial Lecture at University College London. A high point was his explicit renunciation of his former favourite idea - the ‘savanna ape’ hypothesis. Stating that he and everyone else owed an apology and a huge debt of gratitude to Elaine Morgan, Tobias proclaimed: “We were all profoundly and unutterably wrong!” Tobias continued: “Open the window and throw out the savanna hypothesis; it’s dead and we need a new paradigm!”

I was shocked to discover that when the Royal Anthropological Institute later published Tobias’s lecture, all these sentences had been deliberately censored. No trace of his actual words remained. The world might never have known, had not Tobias himself gone out of his way to spill the beans. He did so in chapter 1 of a book published only in 2011,1 one year before his death. His essay was entitled ‘Revisiting water and hominin evolution’ and the most interesting section is headed ‘Liquidation of the savanna hypothesis’


1. PA Tobias, ‘Revisiting water and hominin evolution’, in M Vaneechoutte, A Kuliukas and M Verhaegen (eds) Was man more aquatic in the past? Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) 2011, pp3-15.