By Howard Means
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There is an essential rightness about swimming, as about all such flowing and, so to speak, musical activities. And then there is the wonder of buoyancy, of being suspended in this thick, transparent medium that supports and embraces us. One can move in water, play with it, in a way that has no analogue in the air. One can explore its dynamics, its flow, this way and that; one can move one’s hands like propellers or direct them like little rudders; one can become a little hydroplane or submarine, investigating the physics of flow with one’s own body. And, beyond this, there is all the symbolism of swimming—its imaginative resonances, its mythic potentials.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN EGYPT…
In the desert, you celebrate nothing but water.
Swimming conjures many things: fierce competition, recreation, exercise, open water; a chance to cool off, show some skin, or sink below the surface and be all alone. Swimming is both a precise skill—see the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University—and a performance art. (Think water ballet and synchronized swimming.) It’s wading, splashing, dunking, the dead man’s float, Marco Polo, snorkeling, bodysurfing, a poolside or beachside or lakeside summer romance. The near weightlessness of swimming is the closest most of us will ever get to zero-gravity space travel. The terror of being submerged is the nearest some of us ever come to sheer hell.
Whatever swimming means to us individually, though, there’s one thing it cannot do without: water. And therein lies a great irony because the most ancient representations of swimming ever found are eight-thousand-year-old pictographs on cave walls in what is now the driest spot on planet Earth.
But maybe that’s not such a great irony after all because swimming, like any activity that dates back to the dawn of humankind, is also an index of change: of social mores, of fashion, of how we relate to nature, of religious teachings and superstitions, of sport and how we judge performance, and most notably in this case of climatological change. Which brings us back to the so-called Cave of the Swimmers at Wadi Sura in the Gilf Kebir, in the southwest corner of Egypt, not far from Libya and Sudan.1
The cave and its pictographs had long been known to Bedouin nomads, but they first came to the attention of the West in October 1933 thanks to the desert mapper and explorer László Almásy. The Hungarian-born Almásy was part of a small wave of adventurers who fanned out across the vast, unknown stretches of the eastern Sahara beginning in the late 1920s. In 1926, he motored the 1,350 miles from Cairo to Khartoum, among the earliest efforts to tame the Nile basin by automobile. That trip at least had the advantage of a river to follow, and river towns along the way. Three years later, Almásy ventured by car far more daringly across a long stretch of the Darb el Arbain, following the ancient caravan route from Selima in western Sudan to the southern Egyptian oasis at Karga.
The rugged Gilf Kebir plateau (its name translates as “Great Barrier”) was slower to yield its secrets. The plateau is both massive—a sandstone outcropping the size of Puerto Rico, rising nearly a thousand feet above the desert floor—and massively remote. So far as is known, its existence was never mapped until early in the twentieth century when it was “discovered” by two of Egypt’s most famous desert explorers: Ahmed Hassanein, who would later serve as chamberlain to King Farouk, and Prince Kamal el Dine Hussein, son of the Egyptian sultan Hussein Kamel.2
The western side of the plateau was particularly forbidding, unseen by European eyes until the early 1930s when Almásy and a twenty-three-year-old Englishman, Sir Robert Clayton-East-Clayton, the 9th Baronet of Marden, mounted a joint attack. Almásy would lead a fleet of automobiles across the desert, while Clayton handled reconnaissance overhead in his lightweight, single-engine de Havilland Gipsy Moth airplane. Flying low over the plateau, Clayton was able to pick out a promising, nearly hidden valley, but neither he nor Almásy on the ground below could find a way to ascend the abrupt plateau, and with fuel running low for both ground and air explorations, the party gave up and retreated to Cairo.
Robert Clayton would never complete the mission. He died of polio soon after returning to England. In the end, it was Almásy, Patrick Clayton (no relation to the Baronet), and several others who became the first Westerners to enter the valley and explore its caves—the first also to realize that they had stumbled upon a treasure trove of primitive ancient art. To Patrick Clayton goes credit for discovering the so-called Giraffe Rock, rich with paintings of the long-necked mammals. Other caves featured archers, cattle, and female figures. So plentiful were the figures that the site quickly became known as Wadi Sura—roughly, Valley (or Dry Riverbed) of the Pictures.
László Almásy, though, won the big prize, or at least the most inexplicable. In October 1933, he scrambled up some boulders, poked his head inside a previously unexplored cave fourteen meters by eight meters wide, and there, floating effortlessly on the rock wall, were multiple painted figures who gave every indication of being caught midstroke doing some highly relaxed version of the old-fashioned doggy paddle.
Almásy had found the Cave of the Swimmers, but the swimmers themselves posed far more questions than answers. The archers, the cattle, the female and other human figures were basically predictable. As daunting as the Sahara was, it was not uninhabited. Nomads had been crossing the sand for millennia. Ancient caravan routes like the one Almásy had traveled by car in 1929 were well established. Camels by the thousands, herded and wild, could still be found among the dunes and vast empty spaces.
But swimmers? Swimming implied more than ground moisture and sufficient rain to sustain grasses for grazing. Swimmers conjured up water in depth and quantity. The pictographs suggest that the bone-dry riverbeds that crisscrossed the Gilf plateau—Wadi Sura and nine others—had once fed lakes that had not only been swimmable but actually swum.
What did it all mean? László Almásy attempted to provide the answer in a little-read 1934 monograph, in Hungarian; subsequent research and archaeological evidence have backed Almásy in his broad details: The Sahara—the “Great Sand Sea” as it is often called—had been for the better part of many millennia a thoroughly inhabitable and very aquatic place. In some places, maybe in most, it appears to have been a very dangerous place to swim as well.
Recent excavations led by the National Geographic Society at the largest Stone Age graveyard ever found in the Sahara—at Gobero, in Niger’s T’en’er’e Desert (the stark “desert within the desert”)—revealed skeletal remains of crocodiles, hippos, and Nile perch. The hippos and perch particularly indicate a deep-water lake at the Gobero site: mature Nile perch, which can easily reach six feet and five hundred pounds, are not a fish made for shallow waters, or light fishing tackle either.
Skeletal evidence was also found of elephants, giraffes, hartebeests, warthogs, and pythons at the Gobero site. Similar fossil evidence can be found at Tassili n’Ajjer, the 72,000-square-kilometer plateau in southeast Algeria, where it meets Libya, Niger, and Mali. More important at Tassili are the fifteen thousand plus rock engravings and paintings that first came to Western attention in 1933, the same year Wadi Sura was discovered. Among them are a whole host of animals, including hippopotami, that have been absent from the area for thousands of years.
Wadi Sura hasn’t received anything like the same well-funded archaeological attention that has been lavished on Tassili and especially Gobero. But it’s on roughly the same latitude, and its pictographs suggest a similar, if less diverse, animal population and a hunter-gatherer human population that learned to take advantage of the water that nature had placed so generously at its doorstep.
Triangulating the evidence from all three sites and many, many others creates a fairly accurate timeline (that is, geological time—within, say, plus or minus a thousand years) of when this Green Sahara flourished.
What’s known is that about twelve thousand years ago, the Earth, as it does every now and again, wobbled slightly in its orbit. That was enough to shift the seasonal monsoons we now associate with the Central African jungles slightly northward, bringing fresh rains to the previously parched Sahara. All across North Africa, lakes sprang up in long-dry indentations. The plentiful rains may have also reactivated river systems that date back to the Middle Miocene period, eleven to fifteen million years ago. One radar study posits a 300-kilometer drainage basin, beginning with three tributaries—one originating in the western Gilf Kebir, near Wadi Sura—and ending in the Mediterranean Sea.
Where water arises, fish and birds follow. Animals, too, including human ones. By ten thousand years ago, migrants had shown up in the previously desiccated Sahara in sufficient numbers to leave a discernible record behind them. That’s when the towering Kiffian—sometimes six feet or taller—began settling into the Gobero site. Nile perch seem to have been plentiful. The Kiffian hunted them probably from reed boats, using bone-tipped harpoons.
For people accustomed to wild climatological extremes, this must have been a paradise, but not a permanent one. Circa eight thousand years ago, just about the time the swimmer-artists were hard at work at Wadi Sura, long history began to reassert itself. The monsoons once again went south. For a thousand years, the Sahara slowly reverted to its desiccated self, but then the climate gods intervened again. A fresh monsoon uptick, not as strong this time, not as much rain, regreened the desert for another two and a half millennia. Burial sites from this later period still show evidence of deep-water waders—an upper-arm bracelet carved from a hippo tusk, for example—but the fish skeletons that survived are smaller and suggest shallow water: tilapia instead of Nile perch.
And then? Maybe it was just the Earth wobbling yet again, or that plus the effects of grazing livestock and domesticated farming. But the monsoons retreated once more to Central Africa, perhaps for good. Rain in any quantity grew sparse, then all but vanished. The thin ground cover that remained offered little and finally no protection from the relentless sun. Desertification had a force multiplier. Dirt yielded to sand. The sand grew, encompassed, and overwhelmed virtually everything and everywhere, save for a few oases and deeply isolated valleys, and the swimmers on the cave wall at Wadi Sura—a lost tableau of the Green Sahara—entered into a kind of hibernation, not to be seen again by other than nomadic eyes for six thousand years or more.
The Cave of the Swimmers gained fame a quarter century ago because of Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, and the subsequent movie of the same name, starring Ralph Fiennes.
Beautifully written, Ondaatje’s novel is hard to grab hold of. Time and place seesaw back and forth. Truth is elusive; characters are sometimes intentionally amnesiac. One reviewer called the novel “a poetry of smoke and mirrors.” It’s every bit of that. László Almásy survives intact in Ondaatje’s telling, at least as a person. He’s the “English” patient, ironically enough, given his Hungarian roots. Robert Clayton-East-Clayton becomes Geoffrey Clifton. (The blue blood remains, but the baronetcy is gone.) Dorothea, Clayton’s new wife in the real world, is transformed in this fictional one into Katharine Clifton, Almásy’s lover. (There’s irony here, as well. By all accounts, Almásy was gay.)
The timeline has been pushed forward to embrace World War II. Suicide, violent death, hideous wounds sometimes seem to be everywhere. Treachery, too. Clifton fronts as a freelancing aerial photographer but is secretly mapping the desert for British intelligence. Almásy ultimately betrays British secrets to the Germans, as he did in real life.
For the greatest part, the story is set in the near-ruins of an Italian villa, but the Gilf Kebir, the surrounding desert, and the cave and its swimmers are always there in the background. Director Anthony Minghella opens the movie with an unknown hand—Katharine’s, we later learn—brush-stroking renderings of the suspended figures on the cave wall and segues from there to an aerial sweep of the surrounding desert, sand wave upon sand wave. He closes it in much the same way. Almásy carries the dead Katharine out of the Cave of the Swimmers and then flies her body over the Great Sand Sea and into the horror that awaits him, before the camera makes a final shift back to now-liberated Italy.
In his novel, Ondaatje also keeps returning to the cave and to the Sahara more broadly. When Almásy falls to earth burning from his plane, the Bedouins make a “boat of sticks” to transport him. They keep him alive because “I had information like a sea in me”—maps of the seafloor they traveled. “These were water people,” he writes still later. “Even today caravans look like a river.” As with the sea, nothing in the desert is strapped down or permanent. Dunes disappear. Like waves, they are pushed across the desert surface and vanish. People disappear, too—drowned as completely in sand as they might be in water. Maybe most important: “In the desert, you celebrate nothing but water.” Exactly what the Cave of the Swimmers ultimately does.
Between the 1992 book (which won the prestigious Booker Prize), the 1996 movie (nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director), and the sheer exoticness of the site, Wadi Sura would seem to have been ripe for a tourist invasion, and indeed there has been some tourism and attendant desecration of the cave paintings such as by, for example, splashing water on the cave wall to sharpen the contrast for photographs or chipping off pieces of paintings for take-home souvenirs.
But tourism remains the exception at Wadi Sura, and for good reasons. For starters, there is no infrastructure within hundreds of miles of the Gilf Kebir. Such expeditions as there are commonly leave from Cairo, head to the oasis at Bahariya and then on to the White Desert for a first night of camping. From there, it’s a week of hard driving via Land Rovers or their equivalent across the desert, to the Ammonite Scarp, rich in tiny sea fossils (another reminder of the Sahara’s ancient wet past), then deep into remote landscapes, and finally—a punishing week or so into the trip—through the Aqaba Pass and on to the Gilf Kebir and to Wadi Sura. If you get there at all.
One adventure travel outfit that includes Wadi Sura on its itinerary warns at the outset that given “the realities of travel across the Gilf Kebir… it is not possible to guarantee the tour will pan out exactly as described.” Sandstorms, mechanical problems, shifting terrains are commonplace. National authorities restrict and open access as the political climate shifts in nearby Libya and Sudan. Since 2010, every expedition must also be accompanied by a police vehicle and armed police officer. “This is a journey of a lifetime,” the warning continues, “for the true desert lover prepared to tolerate some discomfort in order to see places only a few Westerners have ever visited.”
Another guidebook is more specific about the potential “discomfort”: “Don’t even think of going with less than three 4WD vehicles, or without a GPS set and satellite phone.” Even then, the book cautions, “sand gets into every crevice of your body, there’s no water to spare for washing, and you start to stink—like everybody else in the vehicle.” Little wonder that in the film version of The English Patient, the “Wadi Sura” scenes were actually shot in Tunisia.
For its part, the British Foreign Service as late as spring 2019 was warning “against all but essential travel” to anywhere remotely near to the very far-flung Gilf Kebir. All of which probably explains why seventy years passed before a second major rock art site became known in the Wadi Sura valley, the so-called Cave of the Beasts, with at least fifteen hundred representations of animals and humans on its mute stone walls, including more swimmers painted in a style similar to those discovered by László Almásy.
And then there’s Wadi Sura itself. While many places claim to be the driest spot in the world, this totemic home of primitive swimming art really does seem to take the prize, especially if you measure by the aridity index—a ratio of the evaporation power of the solar energy that hits a specific location to the rainfall actually received there. In the case of Wadi Sura, that ratio is 200. Put another way, the sun is capable of evaporating two hundred times the local precipitation, which is annually negligible or nonexistent. At the Cave of the Swimmers, water doesn’t have a chance in hell.
The Swimmers themselves, those depicted on the cave walls, dealt with no such discomforts. The planet hadn’t yet rewobbled on its axis, condemning a huge swath of North Africa to desert. For all they can imagine, the water will be out there waiting for them every day to come until the end of time.
No one can say exactly what the swimmers are swimming through. Nor are scholars unanimously convinced they are swimming at all. In a 2009 article for Anthropologie, Jiri Svoboda contends the figures are more likely floating in thin air—perhaps because they are in an altered state of consciousness or more likely because they have been literally thrown in the air by unseen humans below them as part of an ancient African ritual dance. Douglas Coulson, founder of TARA (Trust for African Rock Art), also posits that the seemingly floating bodies are a “visual metaphor” for the artist’s (or artists’) out-of-body experience, maybe induced through hallucinogens or via the kind of rhythmic clapping and chanting Coulson has witnessed among other African desert people.
Other scholars have suggested that the swimmers are actually negotiating a region called Nun, a primordial ocean that the dead must pass through on their way to a beneficent afterlife and where the evil dead are culled for special tortures. As evidence, the authors cite the presence of similar beastlike figures in the paintings found at both sites, in 1933 at the Cave of the Swimmers and in 2003 at the Cave of the Beasts.
Maybe, then, this really is a case of afterlife hell; Christians didn’t invent purgatory. The beasts are many times larger than the swimmers and undeniably scary, but if those monsters are culling the evil, why is there so little panic among the swimmers? The ones on the wall at Wadi Sura look like they could keep going all day.
Besides, anyone deeply familiar with the doggy paddle knows it when she sees it: the feet, the hands, the position of the head are unmistakable. Those representations of swimmers could have been modeled at the Brookside pool in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; the Crozet Community Park pool in rural Virginia; and other venues where I lifeguarded and taught swimming to boys and girls—and men and women—who had no idea how to otherwise move through the water.
Who knows? Eight-thousand-year-old mysteries are not easily solved. The key point is—dead or alive, heading for the afterlife or just beating the midday sun, or maybe just plain stoned—the swimmers are actually swimming, feet stretched behind them or legs bent at the knee as if getting ready for a new kick, arms reaching out in front. What’s more, even if these are tableaus of tripping, not swimming, the artist or artists responsible still had a frame of ready reference for portraying it, another near-gravity-free experience that didn’t require hallucinogens or frantic dancing to enjoy.
Wheeled vehicles were still four millennia in the future, hieroglyphs almost five thousand years away. But in an area that is now so like the barren surface of Mars that NASA has used it for landing simulations, swimming was common enough that prehistoric artists enshrined it on walls that have preserved the record for at least eight thousand years.
1 To be exact, 23 degrees, 35 minutes, and 40.99 seconds north of the equator, and 25 degrees, 14 minutes, and 0.6 seconds east of the Prime Meridian.
2 Hassanein was a multitalented man. He competed for Egypt in the épée and foil events in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics.
GODS, HUMANS, AND THE AQUATIC APE
Over 380 million years ago, the basic form of our limbs was already in place, albeit in fish which swam through the Devonian sea.
Creationists and evolutionists agree on at least one thing: life began with water.
In the opening lines of the Book of Genesis, God creates an Earth without form and void, an Earth on which darkness is upon the face of the deep. Then in verse 2, less than thirty words into the six-hundred-thousand-word Old Testament, God’s Spirit moves upon the water, and the fine work of creation begins. God separates light from darkness. He divides the waters under the firmament from those above it—the oceans from Heaven. Dry land appears, vegetation, the sun and the moon, creatures of the deep, fowl of every kind, and beasts as well, four-legged ones and creeping things. Then on Day Six, God creates his masterwork—humankind in his own image—and on the Seventh Day he rests.
Evolution gets us to the same place but takes four billion-plus years longer. The one-cell creatures of that first, all-encompassing deep grow to two cells, eight cells, complicated fish with gills capable of taking oxygen out of H2O, and on from there. Eventually, air breathers struggle ashore, get a foothold on the land, and finally half a million years or so ago, Homo sapiens—our long-distant ancestors—begin to leave their first footprints.
Either way, in creationism’s fast lane or along the scenic route of evolution, water is central to the story. It’s where life first formed, and maybe where life as far we can imagine it will end. (See Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, Steven Spielberg’s A.I., global warming, and more.) Even today, we humans are aquatic mammals until virtually the moment of our birth. Our first breath out of the womb can’t be that different from the one taken by the first proto-us who stumbled or more likely finned themselves ashore—pure surprise!
Although we are eons to the hundredth power removed from those first fish that crawled or flopped or pushed themselves out of the sea, we still bear some striking anatomical resemblances to them and their immediate ancestors. The fish genus known as Tinirau dates back at least 375 million years. Tinirau never left the ocean, but in an evolutionary sense, it clearly was preparing to. Instead of the sort of fins any fisherman would recognize—fans of thin bones, often spikey at the tip—Tinirau’s four fins were each attached to its body by a single bone, just as our arms are attached to our bodies by the humerus and our legs by the femur. Today’s “walking catfish” of South Florida are closer to chunky snakes—they wriggle their way forward. The Tinirau heralded the dawn of tetrapods—four-footed creatures, just like us before standing up caught on.
As Brian Switek wrote back in 2012 for Wired.com, “Over 380 million years ago, the basic form of our limbs was already in place, albeit in fish which swam through the Devonian sea.” Something to think about!
The fish–human comparisons don’t end there. Swimming also remains deeply encoded in our biology. Full or even partial submersion triggers a whole suite of involuntary responses that would seem far more helpful to animals that lived in the water than to those that walk on dry land.
Spend an hour up to your head in water heated to 32 degrees Centigrade (almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit), and your heart rate will drop on average by 15 percent, and systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 11 and 12 percent, respectively. Knock the temperature down 10 percent or more (toward the range that competitive swimmers prefer) and the benefits in cardiopulmonary efficiency are greater still. A study in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health found that “winter swimming” (and remember, we’re talking “circumpolar” here) reduces tension, fatigue, and negativity while boosting vigor and relieving pain from multiple conditions including rheumatism, fibromyalgia, and asthma. No wonder whales often seem more at peace with themselves than we humans do.
One more piece of evidence reinforces that there’s something genetically aquatic about us humans: the mammalian diving reflex. Plunge into cold water, and three things happen automatically:
• Your heart rate slows by up to 30 percent, or 50 percent or more in trained individuals. (The triggers here are the trigeminal facial nerves, which run on either side of the nose, and the vagus nerve, which connects brain, heart, lungs, and digestive tract.)
• As that happens, muscle contractions in blood vessel walls reduce blood flow to the extremities, preserving blood (and critically the oxygen it carries) for the core organs—your brain and heart.
• Continue descending below the surface, and you trigger a third phenomenon: blood plasma and water fill your chest cavity to protect the critical organs there—lungs and heart—from the increased external water pressure.
Granted, other than pearl hunters, maybe Navy SEALs, and so-called free divers, no part of this reflex is broadly useful for humans.1 The water has to be 70 degrees Fahrenheit or colder to trigger the diving reflex, an uncomfortable temperature for most of us. What’s more, humans simply aren’t made to swim with the ease, strength, or power of the mammals most dependent on the diving reflex—whales, seals, otters, porpoises, and the like. But that such a reflex exists at all surely suggests our watery past.
One variant of the reflex provides an important safeguard for human newborns. Submerge an infant up to the age of about six months in water, and his or her windpipe automatically closes to keep water out of the lungs—the secret behind “water-baby” classes and the like taught at so many YMCAs.
- "What could be more audacious an act than the attempt to tell the entire 10,000-year story of swimming in a single volume? But that is exactly what Howard Means's Splash! aims to do. Splash! is an exuberant and sweeping cultural history of the sport and a thoughtful meditation on its possible origins and humankind's larger relationship to water itself. From the first evidence of swimming in Middle Eastern desert cave art to "aquatic heroism" in ancient Roman warfare, to a visit with the uber-stars and superhuman speeds of the 21st century--Means takes us on a breezy, easily readable journey across time and space to help us even to begin to understand why we took to the water in the first place and why we still insist on splashing about in it today. A great gift for the swimmer in you or in your life."—Julie Checkoway, New York Times bestselling authorof The Three-Year Swim Club
- "Howard Means' Splash! has raised the bar for the 'swimoir'! He takes masterful strokes through 10,000 years of the cultural and social history of swimming and makes the strongest case yet written on why everyone should swim."—Bruce Wigo, former CEO & President, International Swimming Hall of Fame
- "Splash! is an incredible book--the most amazing stories of anything and everything you wanted to know about the world and culture of swimming and its history. I loved every page!"—Rowdy Gaines, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist and Olympic television swimming analyst
- "With wit and rich detail,... Means's delightful history of humans in water simultaneously educates and entertains."—Publishers Weekly
- "A nimble social history of humans at play in water... Devoted swimmers will want to splash about in this entertaining narrative."—Kirkus Reviews
- "A thoughtful,... comprehensive, well-researched homage to swimming as a component of survival, leisure activity, and competitive sport"—Booklist
- "Splash is a tour de force across the history of swimming... One of the better explanations of swimming I've ever read.... A joy to read. It should be on every swimmer's reading list and in every swim bag alongside cap, goggles, fins, and paddles."—SwimSwam Magazine
- On Sale
- Jun 2, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Books