The Family That Walks on All Fours

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The Family That Walks On All Fours
Genre Documentary
Country of origin United Kingdom
Producer(s) Jemima Harrison
Running time 59:10
Production company(s) Passionate Productions
Original network BBC Two
Original release 17 March 2006 (2006-03-17)
External links

The Family That Walks On All Fours is a BBC Two documentary that explored the science and the story of five individuals in the Ulas family, a Kurdish family in Southeastern Turkey that walk with a previously unreported quadruped gait.[1][2][3][4]

The documentary about the Kurdish family in Turkey was created by Passionate Productions and was broadcast on Friday 17 March 2006. The narrator is Jemima Harrison. A revised version of the documentary that shifts the focus away from the story of the discovery of the family and includes the views of additional scientists was shown on NOVA on 14 November 2006.[5]


Debate exists as to the nature and cause of the family's walking, including controversial speculation in the form of the Uner Tan syndrome that it may be a genetic throwback to pre-bipedal hominid locomotion. However, Nicholas Humphrey who accompanied the documentary makers, concluded that it was due to a rare set of genetic and developmental circumstances coming together. First, their mother recalls that initially all of her 19 children started off walking with a bear-crawl (i.e. on their feet rather than their knees). Second, due to an inherited recessive genetic mutation, they have a non-progressive congenital cerebellar ataxia that impairs the balance children normally use to learn to walk bipedally. Not being able to manage the balance needed for bipedal walking, they perfected in its place their initial bear-crawl into an adult quadruped gait. The family's walking likely has nothing to do with genes involved in the human evolution of upright walk.


The origin of the documentary is explained: Nicholas Humphrey at his Cambridge home in June 2005 receives a call from Dr. John Skoyles who has seen an unpublished paper by Turkish Professor Uner Tan that focuses upon hand dominance in the family. Humphrey explains his reaction and why the British scientists go off immediately to Turkey.

Background information to the main themes of the story are given with photos of genetic throwbacks. The hostility to the theory of evolution in Turkey and among some Americans is explained as is the need for better information than that provided by human fossils.

The two British scientists and Tan visit the family and their father, Resit. There are 19 children in the family, 12 of them typical, and seven were handicapped, one of whom died. The commentary first introduces Gülin and notes that he "staggers as if he's drunk" but walks on two feet. Then each of the affected hand-walking individuals is introduced: the four sisters Safiye, Hacer, Senem and Emine, and their brother, Hüseyin.

More commentary on the origins of bipedalism, the australopithecine Laetoli foot prints and Lucy. Prof Humphrey explains the importance of learning how they can be helped.

Defne Aruoba, Turkish clinical psychologists and translator is introduced, as is the nature of their problem – it is genetic. Prof Uner Tan and his theory is then introduced that they are "deevolved". Professor Tan’s wife, Doctor Meliha Tan, a neurologist is shown examining them – they have clinical signs of congenital cerebellar ataxia. A shot of a paper is shown by Prof Tan that labels them as having "Unertan syndrome". But the evidence suggests a more complex story: the sisters have good motor skills, elaborately and carefully tying scarves around their heads and doing needlework. They are shown chatting and joking together with Defne.

Their brain damage is not uncommon so why do they – and only they — walk in this way? But there is more than a science problem: the local village are hostile and treat them as outcasts. The local children taunt Hüseyin. It is explained that they moved house when told that their previous one was "cursed", and that when they ran out of water no one would help. Defne tells of the parents' distress about what happen to their children when they die.

At Cambridge University, Professor Roger Keynes, a neuroscientist, explains their brain abnormality – amongst other problems they have a defect of the cerebellar vermis. But Gülin, who walks bipedally, also has this brain defect - so the brain cannot be the whole story since individuals born with cerebellar ataxia can still in a manner walk with bipedality.

In Berlin, geneticist Professor Stefan Mundlos explains that DNA holds the secrets of our past – he hopes to find a gene that has switched off bipedal walking. Humphrey, however, explains the problems of this theory – notably that Gülin, who walks bipedally, also has the same genetic defect.

But as the film makers note there is dissent in Professor Humphrey’s own ranks as his colleague Dr. John Skoyles suggests Mundlos might be half right – he suggests that there may be a gene but it impairs what he calls "superbalance". Dr. Skoyles points out that Hüseyin has good balance on four limbs – what he lacks is the superbalance we use to keep ourselves safely upright on two.

The story develops in Turkey: Defne explains there is local tension. The local military police visit the family and ask the documentary makers to leave. It is explained it is against the law in Turkey to insult Turkey and they fear that the documentary might compare the family to animals.

But Professor Humphrey explains the real problem is religious sensitivity. He is shown visiting and talking to the local imam. But the religious objection to the idea that people did not arise from Adam and Eve does not only exist in Turkey: an evangelistic pastor in America expresses his creationism.

The documentary then shifts to the American Museum of Natural History. Scientists there look at the film and make comments. Professor Will Harcourt-Smith and Dr. Esteban Sarmiento explain the limits of fossil evidence and the hope that this family might provide a new source of evidence.

At Liverpool University, Professor Robin Crompton has studied their movement: they walk in way that apes walk on branches.

The theory of the two British scientists is explained. A clue is that their mother, Hatice, also occasionally moves through a quadruped-like stage when she gets up. The mother explains that all her 19 children crawled on their feet – bear-crawling. The suggestion is that the whole family has a propensity for the use of all four limbs out of which they all dropped except for the cerebellar ataxic children who could not balance and so kept using it, with the result it became their adult gait. Prof Humphrey also notes the importance of the lack of physiotherapy.

Defne then translates and explains the mother’s touchingly deep love for her children. Defne then expresses her own feelings: she does not care to find the source of their problems, she wants to know what can be done for them. The British scientists and the film makers invite in Dr Ali, a physiotherapist. He examines them. He holds out hope for the sisters but not for Hüseyin. He gives the family a $30 walking frame to help them learn to walk on two feet – an aid that surprisingly they have never had. Their father, Resit, says he would give everything if his children could walk without using their hands. His obvious love and deep care of his children is very apparent. Hacer explains she would love go to dances. Hüseyin, however, is shown going through despair, frustration and anger at his condition.

Contrasting with these scenes of sadness, we then see the family enjoying themselves at a sandy beach only an hour’s drive away. In spite of its nearness, they have never been to the sea before. They are shown paddling and touching the sea waves. Hatice, their mother, upon seeing the sea for the first time in her life, says that she did not know that Allah had made such beauty.

The narrator explains that it has been explained to the family that the film will put the world’s spotlight on them. Resit says does not want them compared to monkeys. He does not believe in evolution but also he philosophically observes words cannot harm them and film might bring help and a little understanding. Professor Nicholas Humphrey expresses his concern that this phenomenon may never be seen again.

In January 2006, the film makers return to the family. Before they left, parallel bars had been bought on Dr. Ali’s advice and put outside so the family could exercise upright walking and they have done this nearly every day. The family is seen smiling as they have made progress in learning to walk - and the film closes with Hüseyin walking up a path on two legs.

Production crew[edit]

  • Writer, director, narrator and editor: Jemima Harrison
  • Photographer and producer: Jon Lane
  • Computer model: Premog
  • Titles: Alex Pritchard
  • Additional photography: Darren Hercher
  • Production Assistant: Chloe Hayward
  • Additional Research: David Boardman
  • Archive researcher: Elizabeth Ashe
  • Colourist: Malcom Merdith
  • Dubbing mixer: Matt Skilton
  • Online Editor: Jim Dummett
  • Executive Producer for BBC: Richard Klein
  • Consultants, Turkey: Defne Aruoba, Cetin Mursalioğlu
  • Consultants, UK: Nick Humphrey, Roger Keynes, John Skoyles

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Family may provide evolution clue". BBC NEWS. 7 March 2006.
  2. ^ "Family Walks on All Fours, May Offer Evolution Insight, Experts Say". National Geographic News March 8, 2006.
  3. ^ "FScience May Finally Explain Why This Family Walks On All Fours". Huffingtonposts 07/17/2014.
  4. ^ "Time-warp family who walk on all fours". Daily Mail 08 March , 2006.
  5. ^ "NOVA | Family That Walks on All Fours". PBS.

External links[edit]