HOW DID MONKEYS cross 100 miles of open sea about 21 million years ago? That’s what scientists are asking. According to a study published in the journal Nature, fossil evidence suggests that monkeys managed to migrate from South to North America across the 100 miles of water that separated the two continents at the time.
Some people have suggested that they swam across. But Jonathan Bloch, a paleontologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History quite rightly pooh-poohs that idea. “It is a difficult feat,” he says with impressive understatement. He thinks it’s more likely that they may have accidentally rafted across on a floating raft of vegetable matter.
But no one, it seems, has suggested the obvious — that the monkeys deliberately sailed across. I have always maintained that sailing is much easier than human beings make it out to be. I can see no reason why a bunch of monkeys couldn’t sail a boat a mere 100 miles across the Atlantic. It’s a day’s run, for goodness’ sake. The only question is what kind of boat.
I imagine it must have been the sort of boat that later developed in the South Pacific, a large type of canoe with a single float off to one side for stability. Those snobbish people in the Northeast will claim it was a Cape Cod Catboat, of course, but there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support that idea. In any case, catboats are centerboarders, not fit for open sea work.
And I have no doubt the scientists will soon be hearing from the residents of Kansas, where the wicked witch released a flock of flying monkeys, but I think we can dismiss that claim, too, since although some monkeys can glide from tree to tree, there are none that can fly 100 miles non-stop.
It is surely reprehensible of Nature to introduce this mystery to the public before enough facts are known. For instance, who can say for sure the continents were exactly 100 miles apart 21 million years ago? Who can say for sure there were no monkeys in North America at that time? Just because no fossils have been found, it doesn’t prove that the monkeys weren’t there all the time, does it? Of course not.
Or maybe the Atlantic was frozen during one of those Great Ice Ages we read about, and the monkeys just walked across. Who can say?
It took humans a long time to work out why the chicken crossed the road. It will probably take a lot longer to figure out how the monkey crossed the sea.
Children, behold the Chimpanzee;
He sits on the ancestral tree
From which we sprang in ages gone.
I’m glad we sprang: had we held on,
We might, for aught that I can say,
Be horrid Chimpanzees today.
— Oliver Herford, The Chimpanzee
“You say the tow-truck guy charged you $50 a mile for towing?”
“Yeah, but I got my money’s worth — I kept the brakes on all the way.”
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