Swimming is a popular sport, pastime and for many, an essential part of their survival. When did humans first start swimming?
It is impossible to know exactly when humans started swimming but evidence suggests that people were swimming at least 9000 years ago. Japan had swimming competitions thousands of years ago and it was a popular activity in Great Britain by the 1820s.
For more on swimming and the human relationship with water throughout history, read on.
It is impossible to say with any certainty when humans or our ancestors first ventured into the water to swim.
It has been hypothesized, most famously by Elaine Morgan, that humans evolved from a species of ape that was more aquatic than modern apes. This theory is known as the “Aquatic Ape Hypothesis”.
While the hypothesis would account for a gap in theories about the human evolutionary chain, no remains of these semi-aquatic human predecessors have been found.
In any case, it is clear that either humans or some of our prehistoric ancestors began swimming at some point. The earliest historical evidence for humans swimming is a series of cave drawings in the Sahara.
The cave, located in the Gilf Kebir plateau, is known as the “Cave of Swimmers” because of its rock art. The art depicts, among other things, humans swimming, which led its discoverer, László Almásy, to theorize that the Sahara had once been home to abundant water.
Rock art was a popular tradition in Africa for thousands of years, making it very difficult for archeologists to estimate the age of the depictions of swimmers.
They have generally been dated between 7000 and 4000 BCE, with some researchers suggesting that they could be even older. If they are older, they could serve as confirmation that humans have been swimming for more than 10,000 years.
Numerous other works of art depicting swimming can be found around the world. There are also many literary references that date back thousands of years. Some of the most influential writings of the ancient world reference swimming, including the Bible and Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”.
The Ancient Greeks held swimming in high regard, though it was not an Olympic discipline in the ancient games. Swimming was seen as a prestigious ability and pointing out somebody’s inability to swim was seen as an insult.
Plato, one of the most influential philosophers in history, once said that inability to swim was a sign that a person lacked a proper education.
The Romans were also keen swimmers, unsurprising given their tradition of bathing, and Julius Caesar was noted as an excellent swimmer.
Many other influential figures have been swimmers. Among them, Charlemagne was said to be an advocate for swimming for its physical and psychological advantages.
Evidence suggests that Japan held swimming races more than 2000 years ago, potentially making the Japanese the first people to swim competitively on a widespread basis.
Emperor Go-Yoozei stated in 1603 that school children should learn to swim and that schools should also race against each other. It isn’t clear when these races became commonplace in Japan, but records from 1810 show that school races had begun by this time.
In Europe, the tradition of swimming largely faded when the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th Century. Swimming existed largely as an instinctive survival instinct rather than something done for recreation or competition.
This gradually changed in Britain, where Queen Anne visited the Roman baths in the city of Bath in 1615, saying that it had improved her health. George III was known to bathe in the sea in the 1780s and was an advocate for swimming.
By the 1820s, swimming had largely reverted to its former status of being a pursuit of the elite. In time, this spread throughout society’s other classes to the point that swimming became perceived as an essential skill, taught in schools across Europe and the rest of the world.
Racing became increasingly popular. Swimming, which had not factored into the Ancient Olympic Games, became one of the cornerstones of the modern Olympics. In addition to racing, there are artistic forms of swimming that display aquatic grace and agility, as well as diving and team sports such as water polo.
Swimming has become so widespread that it is natural to wonder which of our ancestors was the first to venture into the water. It seems unlikely that we will ever truly know the answer.