Community of Asian ‘Sea Gypsies’ Are the First Known Humans to Develop Genetic Adaptations to Being Underwater

By: Lauren Fokas | Last updated: Nov 08, 2023

Recently, researchers found a group of nomadic, seafaring people whose bodies have physically adapted to being underwater.

These people, known as the Bajau, have the ability to stay underwater and hold their breath more than six times as long as average humans.

Who Are the Bajau?

The Bajau people live on houseboats among the islands of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.


Source: Mauricio Handler/National Geographic/Getty Images

They almost exclusively eat fish they catch from the sea and only go into local towns to trade or hide from extreme weather.

A Long History of Diving for Fish

While this tribe has many ways of catching fish to feed themselves, their preferred tactic is diving for fish—they’ve been doing so for hundreds of years.


Source: YouTube

The Bajau sometimes use hand weights and goggles, but even with no other equipment, they can dive up to 100 feet to catch their dinner.

The Bajau People: Breath-Holding Contest Champions

In addition to being able to dive to great depths without equipment, the Bajau are also incredibly unique. On average, they can hold their breath more than six times the maximum time most humans can.


Source: YouTube

In fact, while the average person can only hold their breath for a max of two minutes, people in the Bajau tribe can hold theirs for an average of thirteen!

Desperately Trying to Understand the Bajau People

In 2018, scientists wanted to understand how these people were able to dive to such great depths and stay under water for extended periods of time, so they began studying the Bajau tribe.


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What they found is something truly incredible and almost unbelievable: The Bajau people’s bodies had evolved and are different from any other human on earth.

Genetic Adaptations in the Bajau People

The first and most notable evolution of the bodies of the Bajau tribe is that their spleens are 50% larger than all other humans.

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When any human goes underwater and holds their breath, the spleen contracts and releases red blood cells to allow the body to increase oxygen capacity until they can breathe fresh oxygen again above water.


The Enlarged Spleen Changes Everything

Therefore, with a spleen 50% larger than the average human, the Bajau people have more red blood cells to be used for diving and holding one’s breath.

Source: YouTube

It means they can carry more oxygen in their blood than the average person, and consequently, they don’t need to come up for air as frequently.


Differences in Genetic Make-up

Researchers also found that the PDE10A gene in the Bajau people had mutated. They believe this change is the reason why their spleens have increased so significantly in size.

Source: Freepik

PDE10A is in charge of the thyroid hormone T4, which regulates low oxygen levels during times of stress and increased metabolic rates. Essentially, higher amounts of T4 in the body lead to an increased spleen size.


More Adaptations of the Bajau

As well as the increased T4 hormone and spleen size, the researchers noted the Bajau people also seem to have what they’re calling “diving-specialized genes.”

Source: Mauricio Handler/National Geographic/Getty Images

For example, unlike other people, the Bajau tribe has a gene that prevents the occurrence of hypercapnia when diving, a problem that occurs when carbon dioxide is elevated in the blood after being underwater for extended periods of time.


Even the Bajau Peoples’ Lungs Have Changed Over Time

Richard Moon, a scientist at Duke University, reported the Bajau people also have lungs with much stronger walls that can withstand high amounts of blood.

Source: Mauricio Handler/National Geographic/Getty Images

He explained that while other people experience ruptured lungs at deep depths, the Bajau do not, as their time spent underwater has led to the development of much stronger lungs.


Not the Only People on Earth With Exceptionally Strong Lungs

What’s especially interesting about Moon’s findings on the Bajau’s lungs is that other researchers have found this same phenomenon in Tibetan people, but for a very different reason.

Source: Getty Images

Tibetans live high in the Himalayan Mountains at altitudes over 15,000 feet. While the average person would struggle to breath in this setting, the evolved lung strength of the Tibetans allows them to live safely and comfortably on the “Roof of the World.”


The Bajau May Disperse Completely in Near Future

The research conducted on the Bajau people is incredibly important work for scientists attempting to understand the human body, as well as evolution as a whole.

Source: Mauricio Handler/National Geographic

Sadly, the Bajau live as a segregated and marginalized community, and have essentially dispersed due to industrial fishing. As they integrate into society, their physical traits will deteriorate, and scientists may struggle to ever truly understand how the Bajau body could do what it does.