About 365 million years ago, our fish-like ancestors evolved limbs that enabled them to climb out of water onto land—forming the evolutionary bridge to all terrestrial land mammals that would one day inhabit planet Earth, including humans.
Despite being hundreds of millions of years away from our ancestral transition between water and land, humans have a special relationship with the ocean – a relationship beautifully illustrated in Marvel’s latest epic sci-fi sequel. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
The film pits the people of Wakanda against the Talokan – a society of people inspired by real Mesoamerican life and led by the serpent god Namor, who evolved centuries ago to live and breathe underwater. In the film, Namor explains how his ancestors were besieged by white colonizers. They sought advice from the god Tlāloc, who led them to consume a blue plant.
“The plant robbed them of their ability to breathe air, but enabled them to draw oxygen from the sea,” Namor tells Princess Shuri of Wakanda. Namor is unique in that it can survive on both land and water, but the rest of its people have adapted to an exclusively aquatic lifestyle.
So the humans abandoned their colonized lands and fled to the sea, where they formed an underwater refuge called the Talokan. Through this device Wakanda forever shows a fictional example of people who have returned to the water for safety reasons. The film’s premise provides an opportunity to re-examine our unique human relationship to life at sea versus on land – including a real-life group of people whose society is strikingly similar to Talokan. Let’s dive in (pun unintentional).
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How did our ancestors come to land?
About 360 to 400 million years ago, a group of four-limbed animals known as tetrapods rose from the sea and onto land, preparing the way for life on earth as we know it—including our own human existence.
Tetrapods essentially descended from the last common ancestor of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. In 2006, scientists first published research on a “tetrapod-like” fish called tiktalik, This likely served as a transitional fossil between fish, whose limb-like fins helped them navigate shallow waters, and the land-based tetrapods that followed.
Robert Gess, paleontologist at the Albany Museum in South Africa, narrates Discover Magazine that tetrapods likely moved to the ocean to “exploit” a resource free of their ocean-dwelling predators. In evolutionary language, they fled to the Land in search of safety—a reversal of what Namor and his people would do hundreds of millions of years later.
But oddly enough, there is also an evolutionary precedent for return From Land to Sea – Namor and his people are far from the first creatures on earth to plunge back into the ocean. Whales actually evolved from a group of land mammals that lived near riverbanks in present-day Pakistan. And last year scientists reported a species of fish that evolved to walk on land but has returned to the water.
“They had this evolutionary line of fish that evolved to walk, but this one said, ‘Eh, I’m not going to do that. I’m going back in,'” said Neil Shubin, a co-author of the study NPR.
Other species like the salamander-like Crassigyrinus scoticus lived “secondarily” an aquatic lifestyle, meaning they could technically live on land, but their reduced front legs made life on earth difficult, so they largely adapted to returning to an aquatic lifestyle. Modern examples of secondary aquatic animals are polar bears and penguins.
Did humans evolve earlier to live in water?
If humans had evolved to live fully underwater, they would probably have to be somewhere in the order of 1000 pounds to have enough insulating fat for us to move quickly to find food in extremely cold water. This £1000 figure comes from a 2018 study by Stanford University scientists.
So the slim, muscular physique of the people of Talokan is probably not very good for life underwater. Although humans did not grow to such great weights, there are some scientists who still maintain that water was key to human evolution.
The prevailing view today is that humans descended from canopy-dwelling primates to adopt bipedal, upright lifestyles through a series of terrestrial evolutionary adaptations over millions of years. But there is still considerable room for argument as to how or why humans evolved the way we did.
As early as the 1960s, marine biologist Alister Hardy proposed a now-discredited “water ape” hypothesis to explain why humans have evolved distinct traits — hairlessness, subcutaneous fat, bipedalism, etc. — that our closest living primate relatives lack. The highly controversial theory suggests that our hominin ancestors lived a “semi-aquatic” lifestyle – eating mostly tropical fish and tubers.
Because these ancient peoples spent a lot of time in the water, they would have evolved traits more common in aquatic mammals, such as large brains, breath-holding, and subcutaneous fat to keep us warm in the water. Bipeds, this hypothesis goes, arose to help humans keep their heads above water.
But there is little evidence to support the aquatic ape hypothesis, such as fossils that demonstrate such a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Critics say that aquatic ape advocates are fascinated by simple “umbrella” hypotheses that attempt to offer a single explanation for why humans have a unique set of evolutionary traits when those traits are more likely to become complicated in a set Customizations have evolved over a long period of time.
To be perfectly clear, unfortunately none of our ancestors lived the high life aquatic like the people of Talokan.
The real people who evolved to thrive underwater
The aquatic ape hypothesis may be controversial, but science has proven how a real-world group of humans evolved to live at least partially underwater — the closest equivalent to talokan on Earth.
Known as “sea nomads,” the Bajau of Southeast Asia have survived a thousand years at sea by diving to depths of more than 200 feet in search of food while having to hold their breath for several minutes.
According to a 2018 study published in the journal cell press, the Bajau evolved larger spleens to provide more oxygen while diving. When mammals dive, their spleen contracts and releases oxygen-carrying red blood cells, increasing their oxygen levels by up to 10 percent. The scientists found that the Bajau’s spleens are up to 50 percent larger than those of neighboring groups that don’t interact with the sea.
Most of us aren’t genetically gifted with enlarged spleens, but you can train to learn to hold your breath longer than average. Kate Winslet has reportedly broken an acting record by holding her breath underwater for seven minutes Avatar: The Way of Waterand Tenoch Huerta – who plays Namor Wakanda forever – achieved an impressive five minutes.
With practice, you too could probably live underwater like the Talokan—if only for a few minutes.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is now streaming on Disney+.