I had this question in my mind and tried to think of why we would evolve to be able to control our breath. I remembered the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, which makes a lot of sense and would explain it, though it is not a confirmed scientific theory (but that is another topic). I also found this question, but it has not been answered properly. A Google search hasn't given me much either.

So my question is, what is the current scientific thinking on this topic (if there is one)?

edit I know that the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis is not a scientific theory. I did not ask anything about it, I only brought it up because it came up a lot when I was looking for an answer to my question. I do not want "maybe this is why it evolved", I was more interested in some creditable scientific paper or something similar.

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    $\begingroup$ The aquatic ape theory is a complete conspiracy. Even the link you provided debunks it. I would ask simply "What advantages does holding your breath provide?" and I imagine answers would be along the lines of "stops breathing through smoke or smog, quieter than breathing, allows water crossings of rivers and lakes" (probably others I have missed). I'm not sure whether you're asking for these things, or an tree of life node at which we can pinpoint breath holding with different functions appearing and disappearing. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 9:17
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    $\begingroup$ Speaking is part of the things we do thanks to controlling our breath. Note also that other mammals are also able to vocalize and therefore there are good reasons to think that this is unrelated to recent hominid evolution. In any case, the aquatic ape theory is not a theory but a hypothesis (see here for semantic) that is for the moment supported by very little to no evidence. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ @James 'conspiracy' is a bit strong, isn't it? It's popular with some non-scientists but has never been accepted as a credible or useful hypothesis by the scientific mainstream due to fundamental flaws. (For anyone interested in the idea and some of its flaws, the Wikipedia page on it is actually quite good: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquatic_ape_hypothesis). $\endgroup$
    – arboviral
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ It should also read "hypothesis" and not "theory". A theory in science is a standing theoretical building with the possibility to prove it. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:06
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    $\begingroup$ I some time ago read that it has to do with both bipedal movement (allowing the decoupling of step and breath anatomically), endurance running which seemed to be important in our ancestors, and the evolution of language (in which the production of phonemes, in fact, is not possible without controlling breath). I cannot find the source, though, so I will not make this into an answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 12:47

1 Answer 1


From the abstract of MacLarnon & Hewitt, "The evolution of human speech: the role of enhanced breathing control", Am J Phys Anthropol. 1999 Jul;109(3):341-63:

Evidence presented herein shows that modern humans and Neanderthals have an expanded thoracic vertebral canal compared with australopithecines and Homo ergaster, who had canals of the same relative size as extant nonhuman primates. Based on previously published analyses, these results demonstrate that there was an increase in thoracic innervation during human evolution. Possible explanations for this increase include postural control for bipedalism, increased difficulty of parturition, respiration for endurance running, an aquatic phase, and choking avoidance. These can all be ruled out, either because of their evolutionary timing, or because they are insufficiently demanding neurologically. The remaining possible functional cause is increased control of breathing for speech.

  • $\begingroup$ It would be nice to see some explanation for any downvote -- I'll try to improve the answer if possible. $\endgroup$
    – r.e.s.
    Commented Jul 4, 2016 at 13:31

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