Who doesn’t like waterfalls? Water spilling over rocks from anything more than a few feet seems to enchant just about everyone. Artists, poets, and photographers through the ages have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture the romantic essence of waterfalls.
People of all kinds gravitate toward waterfalls, so waterfalls tend to be very popular tourist attractions. With more than 20 million visitors a year, Niagara Falls is one of the most-visited places in the world. Multnomah Falls on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge is at the top of the ‘must see’ list for tourists in the region.
So what’s the big deal? Why are humans so attracted to waterfalls?
I have some thoughts about this.
I think that our attraction to waterfalls is at least partially innate, hard-wired into our brains as a result of evolution.
We need to imagine what it was like for our ancient ancestors to come across a waterfall. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans lived as animals in a vast world of nothing but wilderness. Their senses weren’t continually bombarded with flashing lights, sounds, and colors the way that ours are. In their world, the spectacle presented by a waterfall was something out of the ordinary– something special.
Let’s say you are a human living in Africa 40,000 years ago. You’re picking your way through a dense forest when you hear a faint sound, like a wind that just keeps blowing and blowing through the trees. You move toward the sound and it grows much louder, eventually drowning out the singing birds and hooting monkeys of the forest.
You emerge from the trees and look down on a tall, roaring waterfall. Sunlight sparkles off of the leaping water droplets and forms a rainbow in the mist. There is a deep thrumming sound that you can feel in your chest, beneath the white noise of the spray.
This place is magical to you. You spend a long time just sitting and watching the hypnotic motion of the water. You return to your family and tell them about it. Eventually, the whole tribe knows about the waterfall and it becomes an important landmark in the area. Perhaps there are religious rituals that are held there several times a year. The waterfall is a meeting place where different tribes come together.
In the primitive world, a waterfall was special for a couple reasons. First, a waterfall is something that stays in one location, but also displays continuous, fast motion and makes a ceaseless, loud noise. What else in nature does that? The visual and auditory displays of energy and power made by large waterfalls would have been awe-inspiring to our ancestors– as they are for us today.
Second, waterfalls are bright white. In the color palette of humanity’s subtropical birthplace, there was the blue of the sky and there were Earth tones (and yes, some bright-colored flowers, birds, and fruit. But these are all small things). Other than clouds, waterfalls were probably the only things that were big and white.
Early humans that were attracted to these aspects of waterfalls might have benefited from the resources found in and around the water. Water itself is essential for life, of course. But food might also be concentrated at the waterfall. Fish can be plentiful in the pools below a waterfall and, in some places, fish migrating upstream gather in these pools in great numbers before leaping up the falls.
Large communities of Native Americans settled near Cascade Falls and Celilo Falls in the Columbia Gorge, to take advantage of the massive salmon migrations that come up the Columbia River. Fish were relatively easy to catch at the falls. Historically, Celilo Falls was a hub of Native American culture for the entire Pacific Northwest– a place where many tribes came together to trade, celebrate, and communicate.
More access to food and water might have translated into a better chance of survival and reproduction for our ancestors. Any genetic predisposition to hang out near waterfalls would get amplified over the generations.
On the other hand, early humans that were frightened by the roar and power of a waterfall might have been less well-fed and less successful in raising a family. Their fear– if heritable– would eventually be weeded out of the population.
This is some heavy speculation, I admit. This is one hypothesis I won’t be able to test.
And, of course, we might like waterfalls just because. Because they are romantic and mystical. Because they are beautiful.
What about you? What do you think makes waterfalls so appealing?