How close are our feet to those of the Western Lowland Gorilla, the most arboreal of all the African apes? Very. This extraordinary fact was aired by Professor Robin Crompton of Liverpool University on Radio 4 on Thursday 22nd August 2013, in the programme, Inside Science. They were reporting on Crompton’s new study just published in the ‘Proceedings of the Royal Society B’ journal, which found that our feet come within the broad spectrum of the African apes in both construction and flexibility. So despite having left the trees some 1.7 million years ago, our feet are still up there swinging from the trees – and the apes with the closest foot construction to ours are those of the above Western Lowland Gorillas, who spend most of their lives in the trees. Extraordinary.
Work was done in the 1930s that supposedly showed our feet had stiffened to adapt to walking instead of tree climbing, assuming they had become stiffer but more stable to give a springy platform for us to perambulate along on. However, the science was bad and Professor Robin Crompton was talking about how he and his team compared the footfall of 45 healthy volunteers – taking some 25,000 steps between them- with the footfall of Bonobo apes and Orangutans.
If you listen to the programme, you will hear how an Orangutan destroyed £15,000 worth of equipment with a sack before much work had been done. Nevertheless enough data was gathered to find there is a huge range of difference in the flexibility of both human and ape feet, and that humans overlap with other apes.
Prof Crompton reckoned that we’d kept our flexible feet to cope with different terrains and this flexibility helps explain why humans can win a long distance race against race horses, provided the race is long and over varied terrain. For example, an annual man v horse race is held every June in the Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells, and has been won by a man twice. Crompton reckons that our flexible feet and bendy legs have much to do with it – after all, an Antelope can easily out run us over a short distance, their long stick like legs and hooved feet making them very efficient. But over a varied course and a distance, the human bean is one of the fastest animals on the planet. Somehow I don’t think that doughnut noshing helps us here. But I do think our relative hairlessness does.
To my great joy, then the discussion turned to our modern Westernised shod feet, which Crompton said were squashed and artificially narrow – basically pathological = involving physical disease. He talked about the feet on the Indian subcontinent, where people wear flip flops or nothing, which were much healthier than our feet. And I remember Dr Cobb, Mr Z health, saying that the feet of the bare foot tribes of the world were, essentially, what we would call flat.
Our feet should be broad, with well spaced toes. Our arches may be low or non-existant, but we should have strong muscles within that give spring to our feet. And the only way to get back to our ape like, fantastic feet is to work our way back to barefoot shoes. My daughter, Sally, has just bought herself a pair of Terra Plana shoes in a lovely pale grey leather. She says they make her feet look like the Pobble’s – but her toes are straight, her calves strong and her feet getting stronger with every step she takes. I still trot about in my Vibram 5 fingers, so feet like the Pobble’s would be nice for me; my feet more resemble a Hobbits. But my toes are straightening up and looking younger every day, the muscles within my feet have olympic strength and my calves worthy of a shotputter. Hurrah. Fortunately I have not got more hairy like a Western Lowland gorilla.