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Bizarre tale of family who walk on all fours as baffled scientists think strange gait could be ‘evolutionary throwback’

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HIDDEN away from the outside world lives an extraordinary family who seems to have escaped four million years of human evolution.

Tucked in a remote corner of Turkey, this is a bizarre tale of the Ulas family whose members have ape-like gait and walk on all fours.

Five members of the Ulas family from Turkey walk on all fours

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Five members of the Ulas family from Turkey walk on all foursCredit: BBC
Hüseyin wanders for many kilometres on his hands and feet

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Hüseyin wanders for many kilometres on his hands and feetCredit: BBC
The siblings spend most of their time at the family's home in southern Turkey

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The siblings spend most of their time at the family’s home in southern TurkeyCredit: BBC
Scientists believe it is down to genetic and developmental circumstances

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Scientists believe it is down to genetic and developmental circumstancesCredit: PASSIONATE PRODUCTIONS

Out of 19 children born to Resit and Hatice Ulas – five siblings walk using their feet and the palms of their hands with astounding agility.

A sixth sibling also walked on all fours, but sadly died aged five.

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.

The four affected women tend to stay close to the house fearing taunts from other people.

However, according to scientists who studied the family, their brother Hüseyin wanders for several kilometres and has basic interactions with other villagers.

Humans ditched walking on all fours nearly roughly four million years ago, but this family appears to have turned the clocks back when it comes to walking upright.

Scientists across the world have been left absolutely baffled by what seems to be an extraordinary glitch in the evolution cycle of humans.

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.

None of the five members of the Ulas family ever attended school – but have learned enough Kurdish to communicate with their own family.

For more than two decades, the family’s existence was kept under wraps – and only a few experts knew about the rare, unidentified condition.

But they were all sworn to secrecy.

The Ulas family was only brought into the public sphere after British scientists saw an unpublished paper by a Turkish professor in 2006.

And the stunning revelation tore up science books as their quadrupedal gait had never before been reported in healthy, adult humans.

Scientific debate

Initially, Turkish scientists speculated that the condition was down to “reverse evolution”.

They suggested that the affected members of the family were going through Uner Tan Syndrome – a disorder proposed by evolutionary biologist Üner Tan whereby affected people walk with quadrupedal locomotion and have severe learning disabilities

But this theory was slammed by British 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.

All five siblings of the Ulas family who walk on all fours were found to suffer from a congenital brain impairment called cerebellar ataxia.

It meant that they found it difficult to balance on two legs – and their motor developments were channelled into all four limbs.

The scientists, however, believe it is not a “sufficient explanation” for the quadrupedality, arguing that a major factor of their condition is down to circumstances and environment.

“Many things were strange about them, we know for a start, they had strange skeletons and crawled unusually,” Humphrey added.

“Some of them then certainly had this extraordinary balance problem.

“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 behaviour as children or as adults are 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.”

All five siblings of the Ulas family were eventually appointed a physiotherapist – and given equipment to help them walk on two feet.

Professor Humphrey noted that by the time he returned on a second visit to the family, they were making significant progress.

The palms of their hands are heavily callused from walking

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The palms of their hands are heavily callused from walkingCredit: BBC
All five siblings of the Ulas family who walked on all fours were found to suffer from cerebellar ataxia

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All five siblings of the Ulas family who walked on all fours were found to suffer from cerebellar ataxiaCredit: BBC

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