Swimming: Is It Natural or Learned?

a caveman is swimming
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Humans don’t have webbed feet. We don’t possess aquatic tails, gills, protective scales or fins for navigating through water, either, so how did swimming become part of our repertoire of survival skills?

In the movie “The English Patient,” cave paintings based on the real parietal art found in a cave in Sura, Egypt, depicted four human beings believed to be performing an early form of the breaststroke.

Some researchers believe early humans may have overcome any fear they might have had of traveling through water as much as 40,000 years ago. This can only lead us to ask: Is swimming a natural skill ingrained in our species or was it later acquired?

We have all have seen clips of newborn babies swimming unassisted in pools. In fact, some “Bajaos” or sea nomads of the Philippines perform quite an interesting ritual related to that.

Upon birth, their newborns are immediately brought into the sea, introducing them to the element that will be a huge part of their life. At the same time, the ceremony awakens what are described as “instinctive” skills. They fully believe swimming is an inborn trait.

Scientific research, however, claims otherwise. The “aquatic locomotion” of infants is natural enough, but babies lack the instinct to raise their heads to the surface to breathe, which is a critical aspect of real swimming. This explains why so many deaths occur in bathtubs and swimming pools each year.

In ancient times, swimming was probably developed as a necessity. Cave dwellers were believed to have spent a substantial amount of their time near water, both as a food source and as a defense mechanism.

Should a sabre-toothed tiger appear, tribe members could easily move in the water for safety—provided there were no crocodiles in the water as well. In this way, swimming contributed to survival.

The Ama divers of Japan, coming from a long line of free divers, have developed a physiology that is well adapted to water. These impressive women can dive deep and spend several minutes under water searching for scallops and other sea shells. This, too, is a testament to human reliance on swimming skills for survival.

Some theories even state that man’s evolution towards a less hairy form is the result of an evolutionary path that revolved around living near water. At one point in the Earth’s history, we may have been evolving towards a semi-aquatic lifestyle and physiology. Our hands are shaped for efficient paddling and the loss of hair allows for streamlined aqua dynamics.

But again, these traits should not be taken as evidence of a “natural” proclivity for swimming. In fact, as renowned author and lifeguard Frank Pia once wrote, “We are, compared to fish and other native creatures, so ill-equipped in both movement and survival in the sea and lakes that consume the vast majority of our planet.”

Of course, the benefits of swimming are by no means limited to survival. The activity involves moving all limbs simultaneously. It makes for an excellent cardiovascular workout and contributes to overall fitness.

Swimming also improves our coordination, posture and balance. The feeling of being surrounded by water can help alleviate stress, too, and being buoyed up quite literally takes a weight off our shoulders as well as our minds. Natural or not, swimming is certainly a skill worth acquiring.

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