Our relationship with water still matters.
- According to new research, half of Neanderthal skulls studied had exostoses — aka "surfer's ear."
- The condition is common in mammals that spend a lot of time in water.
- Though today we are largely disconnected from nature, the consequences of our relationship to it are still felt.
Neuroconservation — your brain on nature: Wallace J. Nichols at TEDxSantaCruz<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fdcc823c0a91a95f271d20a729310d35"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/r2_X7mTUirk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The ocean's perpetual mystery is relenting, though. In 2012, the director James Cameron broke a solo diving record by <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/3/120325-james-cameron-mariana-trench-challenger-deepest-returns-science-sub/" target="_blank">descending nearly seven miles</a> into the Mariana Trench. New technologies are allowing us to discover unimaginable life on ocean floors. Unique creatures provide visual fodder for active imaginations, yet water was, and remains, the singular reason "we" exist.</p><p>Behavioral ecologist Clive Finlayson concocted his <a href="https://snakes-sunrises-and-shakespeare.com/clive-finlayson/" target="_blank">Water Optimization Hypothesis</a> to explain how deeply tied to the oceans, rivers, and seas we are. While subject to critical scrutiny, Finlayson argues that our ancestors needed to adapt to ever-changing environments. Bipedalism favored us for exploring long ranges of territory to work around droughts and floods, keeping us close to water (and therefore food) sources.</p><p><a href="https://theconversation.com/how-prehistoric-water-pit-stops-may-have-driven-human-evolution-78433" target="_blank">Other research</a> points out that in the "cradle of humanity"— the stretch of land now referred to as the Rift Valley, extending from Ethiopia to Mozambique — our ancestors were subjected to 23,000-year cycles of aridity and monsoons. Early human survival depended on a network of springs that kept our forebears alive when the rain gods refused to supply nourishment. </p><p>Water remains essential today, which is why our <a href="https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/" target="_blank">plastic problem</a> is becoming dire. Eighty percent of the world's population lives within 60 miles of a coastline. A whopping two-thirds of the world's economy depends on water in some capacity, be it by travel or resources — a billion people rely on water-based protein for their existence. As scientist Wallace J. Nichols, author of <em>Blue Mind</em>, <a href="https://www.salon.com/2014/07/19/why_our_brains_love_the_ocean_science_explains_what_draws_humans_to_the_sea/" target="_blank">writes</a>, </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each person in the United States uses eighty to one hundred gallons of water every day for what we consider our 'basic needs.' In 2010 the General Assembly of the United Nations declared, "Safe and clean drinking water is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life."</p>
Prehistorical museum in Quinson, France on May 29, 2001 — Neanderthal. Cranium and mandible of the Chapelle aux Saints (Correze).
Photo credit: Xavier ROSSI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images<p>Though we know the importance of water, its appearance on this planet remains somewhat of a mystery. As British paleontologist Richard Fortey <a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/037570261X/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_taft_p1_i1" target="_blank">writes</a>, if not for Earth's gaseous atmosphere and water, life would have never occurred. Thankfully, as our planet's solid crust formed, volcanoes and vents spewed the gases and liquids necessary to create an ecosystem that plant (then animal) life could be born of and subsequently thrive in.</p><p>Roughly a billion-and-a-half years ago single-celled eukaryotes began swimming around in the soup; part of their distinguishing feature is an "eyespot," which is attracted to light. Thus began what the Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith <a href="https://www.amazon.com/Other-Minds-Octopus-Origins-Consciousness/dp/0374227764" target="_blank">calls</a> the "sensory-motor view" of the nervous systems of organisms to their environment. Since that critical development, every form of life has responded to and been shaped by natural forces, <em>especially</em> water. </p><p>For Neanderthals, this meant surfer's ear; for modern Westerners, diseases of affluence — heart disease, cancer, obesity — that occur when you cut yourself off from nature and its processes. Still, the evolutionary consequences of this longstanding relationship remain, even in the most unlikely places, such as wrinkly toes and fingers when we play in an ocean (or bathtub) for too long. </p><p>This common phenomenon too seems shrouded in mystery. The <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-our-fingers-and-toes-wrinkle-during-a-bath/" target="_blank">best guess we have</a> is that it helps improve our grip in water; it's hard enough to tackle a fish without having some evolutionary advantage. Thus, our autonomic nervous system kicks in after long stretches in water, causing our blood vessels to constrict below the surface of our skin. This likely allowed our ancestors to better pick fruit from wet locales and grip the forest floor during a rainstorm. </p><p>We might not be <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/16/david-attenboroughs-aquatic-ape-series-based-on-wishful-thinking" target="_blank">aquatic apes</a>, as David Attenborough and others have attested, but humans have long relied on water for survival. This relationship will continue until we destroy the very environment that made life possible, which means we're going to have to start giving back what we've been taking from for far too long. You can't be absent children without consequence. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>.</em></p>
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