TUCKED in a remote corner of Turkey amid dirt tracks and stone houses live a family that appears to throw out four million years of evolution.
Originally touted by Turkish scientists to be evidence of “backward evolution”, several members of the Ulas family extraordinarily walk on all fours.
Out of 19 children born to Resit and Hatice Ulas – who walk upright – five siblings walk using their feet and the palms of their hands with astounding agility in what researchers first thought was a relapse of the evolutionary leap to standing upright.
It is so tough and unnatural for humans to walk in this way that it is often used as an endurance task in the US military – but for this family it is a heartbreaking reality as they appear to turn back to clock millions of years when it comes to walking.
Early theories suggested the siblings walked as our early ancestors would have on all fours, offering a glimpse into the distant past.
But unlike the primates from which humans evolved, the siblings do not use their fists to walk and instead use the heel of their palms – causing them to be heavily callused.
Some scientists labelled their condition as “backward evolution”- prompting criticism from other experts who argue it is a mix of genetic and circumstantial factors.
Sisters Safiye, Hacer, Senem, and Emine and brother Hüseyin have spent years being tormented by cruel villagers in the Hatay Province of southern Turkey – close to the border with Syria – with rocks and insulting names often hurled in their direction.
A sixth sibling also walked on all fours, but sadly died aged five.
Because of the taunts they receive, the women tend to stay close to the house, but according to scientists who studied the family, their brother sometimes wanders for several kilometres and has basic interactions with other villagers.
None of the five, now aged roughly between 25 and 41, attended school but were able to learn enough Kurdish to communicate with their own family.
For more than two decades, the family’s existence was kept under wraps – a secret to the rest of the world until two British scientists saw an unpublished paper by a Turkish professor in 2005.
The stunning revelation tore up science books as their quadrupedal gait had never before been reported in healthy, adult humans.
Turkish scientists controversially speculated that it was down to a disorder proposed by evolutionary biologist Üner Tan, called Uner Tan Syndrome – whereby people who suffer from it walk with a quadrupedal locomotion and have severe learning disabilities – suggesting it to be a form of “reverse evolution”.
But this theory was slammed by Brit psychologist Nicholas Humphrey who branded it “irresponsible” and “insulting” after meeting and observing the family himself.
Speaking on a BBC Two documentary, Professor Humphrey said: “It’s terribly easy to be lead away on some sort of romantic notion of living fossils.
“I’m not going to make any bones about this, I think that Professor Tan’s description of this family as “devolution”, as an evolutionary throwback, is not only scientifically irresponsible but deeply insulting to this family.”
Professor Tan’s conclusion was discarded by Humphrey and two other Brit experts, neuroscientist Roger Keynes and medical scientist John Skoyles, who argued their gait is due to two rare phenomena coming together.
They believe it is instead down to genetic and developmental circumstances.
The affected siblings, whose parents are second cousins, all suffer from a congenital brain impairment, cerebellar ataxia, meaning they find balancing on two legs difficult and so their motor development was channelled into turning their crawl into a type of bipedalism.
But the scientists believe it is not “sufficient explanation” for the quadrupedality, arguing that a major factor of their condition is down to circumstances and environment.
Up to the age of nine months, the children crawled as usual on their hands and knees, but they then developed a what called a “bear crawl” – getting about on their hands and feet.
“Many things were strange about them, we know for a start, the mother’s told us, they crawled in an unusual way,” Prof Humphreys said on the documentary.
“Some of them then certainly had this extraordinary balance problem, we know they have strange skeletons.
I think that Professor Tan’s description of this family as “devolution”, as an evolutionary throwback, is not only scientifically irresponsible but deeply insulting to this family
Professor Nicholas Humphrey
“We know the mother was producing babies in extraordinarily rapid succession.
“Seven children were born within five years – four of those children went on to be quadrupeds. She must have been totally overwhelmed.
“I don’t think we should be surprised at all – although this is an extreme case of it – that culture can be so influential when increasingly realising that so little of our behavior as children or as adults is actually programmed by the genes.
“The genes give us certain potentials and they interact with the culture we are in.”
In a discussion paper released by Humphrey, Skoyles and Keynes, the scientists argued this condition may never be seen again
“If the persistence of quadrupedal walking in these five siblings has been the result not simply of a cerebellar problem but of a combination of unusual factors – genetic, physiological, psychological and social – then, to the extent that the conjunction of these factors in one family is highly improbable, it is a syndrome that may never be seen again,” they wrote.
“However, even if it is indeed a one-off pathological condition, we think there may be anthropological lessons to be learned from it.
“For, as we stressed at the start, the gait of these adult quadrupeds has
unprecedented features, not seen either in human infants or in other primates: notably, it is a case of wrist-walking, combined with a typically human bipedal use of the back-legs.”
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