• Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

The Earliest Humans Swam 100,000 Years Ago, and Included Neanderthals


Dec 31, 2022

By Jane Messer / The Dialog

Certainly one of my life’s goals is to swim in as many lakes, rivers, swimming pools and oceans as I presumably can, to make use of my liberty and swimming expertise as freely as I can. I like the sensation of being in a big, recent physique of water, its tender immersive, huge or deep buoyancy.

I’ve swum in a freshwater lagoon close to Acapulco in Mexico, with the information reassuring us there have been no crocodiles within the water that day. I’ve swum in a busy London indoor pool noisy with swimmers thrashing about and in Australia’s solely  women’s pool . I’ve swum within the  Weisser See  lake on the outskirts of Berlin, the identical lake that my grandmother swam in, earlier than fleeing Germany. At Jaffa’s Alma/al-Manshiyah Seaside, in Tel Aviv, I’ve appeared up from the ocean to the Mahmoudiya Mosque’s minaret.

I’ve marveled at discovering myself in waters so removed from dwelling. It seems that my capability to swim makes me a part of an elite.

Karen Eva Carr’s Shifting Currents

Karen Eva Carr opens  Shifting Currents  with the startling data that at present worldwide – for all Earth’s many rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, seas and oceans, to say nothing of constructed swimming pools, canals and theme parks – the vast majority of folks can’t swim. Individuals would possibly bathe and wash their garments in rivers and lakes, or undertake ritual ablutions in bathhouses, however the overwhelming majority should preserve their ft on the bottom.

But the earliest humans from over 100,000 years in the past taught themselves swim, for meals and for pleasure. There’s a lengthy historical past of human swimming for utility and leisure, amply recorded in photos from the earliest cave drawings and people narratives.

This yr the OECD  reported that just one in 4 folks in low-income nations can swim. Low to  middle-income nations report extra non-swimmers than swimmers, and a majority of these not capable of swim are women and girls.

Entry to pure waterways has decreased world-wide by means of the privatization of foreshores and seashores, and the constructing of dams, roads, ports, the event of wetlands, and bigger cities.

It takes time to study to swim, is very troublesome as an grownup to study, and do-or-die – it’s unimaginable to faux.

It hasn’t all the time been the case that worldwide most individuals couldn’t swim, although as Carr’s world historical past reveals, swimming talents have shifted over time, together with climate patterns and throughout geographies. Individuals have migrated, conquered, traded, competed and shared tales that celebrated getting into the water or warned of its risks and wish for sacred respect.

Neanderthals Swam

The earliest people swam. Neanderthals residing in Italy about 100,000 years in the past swam confidently. Their ear bones show they suffered from swimmer’s ear from diving 3–4 meters to retrieve clamshells they then formed into instruments.

Over the last main  Ice Age  of 23,000 years in the past, when glaciers reached south to England, northern Germany, Poland and northern Russia, swimming, if it had been current, was deserted. Over the subsequent tens of 1000’s of years, folks didn’t swim.

Throughout the continent of Eurasia, folks turned to farming wheat and millet for bread, and commenced to eat much less fish, a meals that’s wealthy in vitamin D. With a purpose to take up extra daylight, and produce adequate vitamin D essential to good well being, these populations developed genetically lighter pores and skin. A few of these lighter skinned white folks then migrated south and their descendants, the Greeks, Romans, Scythians and Iranians continued to be non-swimmers proper by means of to the tip of the Bronze Age , even in locations that had remained heat through the Ice Age.

1000’s extra years handed, and  then rock paintings at Tassili n’ Ajjer in southern Algeria  present depictions of individuals transferring in a horizontal posture with their arms outstretched. Fairly presumably they’re swimming.

By 8000 BC, within the Cave of Swimmers in western Egypt, small crimson figures swim.

A portray of swimmers within the Cave of the Swimmers, Wadi Sura, Western Desert, Egypt. (Roland Unger/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

One other 5000 years go, and Egyptian hieroglyphic texts and imagery are replete with representations of swimming. Egyptian kings swam, as did poor Egyptians. Many Egyptian women and girls swam, and fairly presumably Cleopatra swam. Mark Antony might swim.

Swimming was widespread all through the continent of Africa, and tales about swimming for enjoyable and pleasure together with searching and foraging, are discovered in lots of conventional tales. Within the Ethiopian story of  “Two Jealous wives” , the dual infants thrown into the river are shortly rescued by swimmers. A humorous West African story tells of a stingy lady who eagerly jumps into the river to swim after a stray bean.

Overarm is the oldest swimming stroke depicted. In Egyptian, Hittite, and early Greek and Roman photos persons are proven swimming, alternating their arms and generally utilizing a flutter kick with straight legs, the identical stroke we’re routinely taught in Australia. Greek and Roman swimmers should not proven placing their faces within the water, and breaststroke is absent from historic imagery and tales.

Solely in Plato’s  Phaedrus is there a point out of backstroke, suggesting {that a} man “swimming on his again towards the present” is behaving foolishly. Sidestroke is used when swimmers must push canoes or carry one thing aloft by means of the water.

Assyrians created presumably the earliest flotation units, habitually utilizing a  mussuk comprised of goat pores and skin to assist them keep afloat within the fast-moving rivers of jap Syria and northern Iraq.


An ancient Egyptian kohl spoon in the shape of a swimmer. The Louvre (Rama/CC BY-SA 3.0 FR)

An historic Egyptian kohl spoon within the form of a swimmer. The Louvre ( Rama/CC BY-SA 3.0 FR )

In historic Eurasia swimming was linked to a number of and opposing myths about racial superiority. When related to a darker pores and skin shade, populations who swam had been particularly dehumanized. By the primary century BC as an illustration, North Chinese language writers had been racializing swimming, associating Southern Chinese language peoples’ familiarity with ocean swimming and consuming of fish to their darker pores and skin shade.

North China was a part of the northern Eurasian non-swimming “zone”, and for these northern-hemisphere non-swimmers, water was sacred, harmful, generally magical, and to not be polluted by human our bodies.

The Greek historian Herodotus remarked that Persians took nice care to,

by no means urinate or spit right into a river, nor even wash their palms in a single; nor let different folks do it; as a substitute, they drastically revere rivers.

Cultural distinction expressed by means of swimming is current all through the historic narratives as one folks observes one other and mark themselves as totally different, relying on how properly, or not, the opposite tradition swims. Additionally it is typically a marker of sophistication. Wealthier Greek and Roman ladies generally took up swimming. Augustus’ great-granddaughter, Agripper the Youthful, was a robust swimmer. When she was stabbed throughout an assassination try on her son, she escaped by swimming throughout a lake, her attackers unable to observe.

Not all cultures swam within the historic world. Throughout Europe and northern Asia, in Mesopotamia (Syria, Iraq and Kuwait) and Southwest Asia, folks didn’t swim, had been afraid of the water, and the actual and imagined creatures of the seas and lakes. Carr’s historical past explores the explanations for this non-swimming by means of a wealth of archaeological, text-based and pictorial sources.

Sexuality and slavery

Carr reveals that it’s not solely heat climate that decides whether or not a neighborhood will swim or not, however different cultural and political elements. She describes her historical past as additionally a examine of whiteness and white tradition. The half that swimming performs in world historical past isn’t impartial.

Swimming was typically related to sexuality and promiscuity. Ovid, as an illustration, continuously evokes swimming as an erotic prelude to rape within the Metamorphoses. A medieval story from Central Asia tells of Alexander the Great and a companion hiding behind a rock to spy on ladies swimming bare. In lots of tales and pictures, the sight of girls and women swimming semi-clothed or bare is linked to disgrace and titillation.

John Reinhard Weguelin, Water Nymph, 1900. (Public Domain)

John Reinhard Weguelin, Water Nymph, 1900. ( Public Domain )

Swimming is intently certain up within the historical past of patriarchy. Trial by water for suspected witches and the ducking of girls and women as punishment, was practiced in Europe for hundreds of years – even up till the 1700s when wealthier Europeans and European-People had been studying swim.

Slavery’s connection to swimming cultures emerges with Muslim slave merchants, who related Central African nakedness with promiscuity and likened the flexibility to swim to animal conduct. Throughout the continents of Africa and the Americas, later medieval and later European explorers additionally invoked folks’s swimming expertise as a justification for his or her enslavement.

However, slave-holders anticipated the African and Native American slaves to swim in the midst of their work. Slaves dived to scrub ships, served as lifeguards for white swimmers, swam when monitoring escaped slaves, and salvaged misplaced items from shipwrecks. Enslaved Native People labored as pearl divers within the Americas.

J. Wesley Van der Voort, Pearl Divers at Work, 1883. (University of Washington/Public Domain)

J. Wesley Van der Voort, Pearl Divers at Work, 1883. (College of Washington/ Public Domain )

Amidst this financial and academic historical past of inequity worldwide, swimming could possibly be described because the pastime of the elite, and definitely Carr believes it has grow to be so.

Carr’s fascinating historical past could be very properly structured, with chapters clearly titled for readers who would possibly need to dip into sure epochs or themes. It’s weakest within the modern-day analyses, drawing too-ready conclusions about modern conditions. (As an illustration, Carr’s evaluation of the explanations for the 2005 Cronulla Riots doesn’t point out the Howard authorities’s anti-migration stance or Islamophobia post-9/11.)

Australian First Nations and Pacifika histories are additionally solely sketched in. However, this bold work achieves its goals of being an enchanting and extremely informative world historical past, written for the lay reader with an curiosity on this wealthy subject, and fantastically illustrated with mono and shade photos, an index and chronology.

High picture: Swimmer in a lake, an exercise relationship again 100,000 years. Supply: astrosystem/Adobe Inventory

This text was initially revealed below the title ‘ The earliest humans swam 100,000 years ago, but swimming remains a privileged pastime’ by Jane Messer on The Conversation , and has been republished below a Artistic Commons License.

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