There are a few characteristics that definitively distinguish humans as human. For example, we communicate with a language, and use symbols; we also create tools, and gather food, but some may argue that one of the more obvious, and defining characteristics is our ability to walk bipedally.
Though there are many creatures in the animal kingdom who also walk bipedally, our primate ancestors did not, and so when we adapted, the ability became a distinguishing factor in our evolution.
But the same cannot be said for all who roam this Earth. In a remote village near the Syria-Turkey border, The Ulas Family, consisting of a whopping 18 children were met with the unfortunate circumstance of having six of those children born with what one can only describe as adaptive quadrupedal walking; the need to walk on all fours.
At first glance, the condition looks very similar to how a primate would walk, so when the six children were discovered in 2005 by Turkish evolutionary biologist Uner Tan, it was first assumed that they were living examples of a devolved human being. Some even went as far as to say they were the “missing link” between our primate ancestors and modern humans. Upon further examination, a different story unfolded.
In a piece completed by 60 minutes Australia, Nicholas Humphries, an evolutionary psychologist, and his team took the affected children to have an MRI analysis of their brains. What they discovered was that their cerebellums, which are responsible for coordinated movements such as posture, balance, coordination and speech, was much smaller than the average human’s, a condition known as cerebellar hypoplasia. As the researchers put two and two together, they eventually came to the conclusion that their quadrupedal movement was not the result of any de-evolutionary circumstance, but an adaptive response to a lack of proper balance; it was simply easier for the children to walk on all fours, then it was to walk bipedally.
A study completed by lead researcher Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas and her team further discovered that their method of quadrupedal walking was entirely different than that of a primate. Where a primate would use the knuckles on their hands, they would use their palms. Furthermore, they walked laterally as opposed to in a diagonal sequence like primates (one hand forward on one side and one foot forward on the other).
And, as stated previously, cerebellar hypoplasia affects speech; these children had developed their own rudimentary language, consisting of an estimated 100 words. By comparison, the average person has a vocabulary of 20,000-35,000 words.
In an interview with Washington Post, Shapiro stated the reasoning for her interest in the subject:
“I was determined to publish this and set the record straight, because these erroneous claims about the nature and cause of the quadrupedalism in these individuals have been published over and over again, without any actual analysis of the biomechanics of their gait, and by researchers who are not experts in primate locomotion,”
Thankfully, the work of researchers like Humphries and Shapiro shed some much needed-light on the ordeal that this family was going through. Since the issue is a matter of balance, railings were installed and walkers were provided to the family so that they could help themselves walk bipedally. When researchers returned to see their progress, all of the affected children were walking upright.