PBS's the Family that Walks on All Fours

A Look at Human Quadrupeds

By Jemima Harrison February 8th, 2008 - 10:41 am PT

That edited video footage was seen nationwide in the US when The Family That Walks on All Fours re-aired recently on PBS as part of the science series NOVA. The film first aired in the UK and has sold to over 30 countries, securing BBC Worldwide’s biggest-ever sale for a single documentary.

Passionate Productions is just me and Jon. We live and work out of the dining room of an idyllic thatched cottage in a small Wiltshire village. The receptionist is a flat-coated retriever.

So what were we doing to upset the Turkish authorities?

Making the Film The Family that Walks on All Fours

In the summer of 2005, I got a phone call from evolutionary psychologist Professor Nicholas Humphrey. We’d worked with Nick before, on a film for Discovery about the placebo effect. “Would you like to make a film about congenital quadrupedalism?” he asked. “Human quadrupeds. Alive today. Living in a remote part of Turkey. They’ve just been discovered by a Turkish scientist. No one else knows about them.” Ah, those magic final six words.

A week later, Jon was on a plane to go and meet the family. The footage he returned with was sensational and profoundly moving. To see adult human beings walking around like animals is shocking. Bipedality is the quality, above all else, that defines us as human beings. It is one of the reasons why the story created such a fuss when it broke with our broadcast on BBC2. And why the US is going mad for the Ulas family all over again after the slightly updated version of our film aired on PBS.

The story was controversial. The cultural and religious sensitivities demanded a deft touch. Turkey is an Islamic country; the family are Kurdish Muslims. It is a crime in Turkey to insult Turks or Turkey and they thought we were portraying Turks as apes.

Living with Congenital Quadrupedalism

Scientifically, opinion was also deeply (at times viciously) divided on why the family walked in a way we haven’t walked for more than four million years. And stuck in the middle was the family itself – the sweetest, gentlest, most generous souls you could ever meet. We were incredibly conscious of our duty of care to them.

We managed to keep the story under wraps until two weeks before transmission. And, boy, when it broke, did it explode. Our website got 200,000 hits in one month. The BBC was swamped. And we blasted the front pages of four national newspapers – although we (and the family) could have done without the Daily Mail’s banner headline: “The Truth About the Monkey Children.”

We’re still in touch with the Ulas family and a percentage of the proceeds of the film has gone to improve their lives. They now have running water inside the house, a well to irrigate their fields and a new terrace where the whole family can sit out in the sunshine.

As we finished filming last summer, the soldiers escorted us off the premises. The family walked with us to our cars to say goodbye. Unknown to Jon, their quadrupedal son Husseyin had just visited their crude lavatory, which was really just a hole in the floor. He is mentally handicapped and his hands, bless him, were smeared with his own feces. Jon reached out to shake his hand. “Watch out!” I warned, but it was too late.

Jon quickly realized his mistake, but didn’t flinch. Instead, and without missing a beat, he turned to the young lieutenant who had threatened us earlier and grabbed both his hands. “Thank you so much,” he said without a trace of sarcasm, continuing to shake his hands until he’d transferred most of the mess. “Thank you so much for all your help.”

Video courtesy of PBS and Passionate Productions.



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Posted 8/02/2008 at 2:33pm Orato Staff


Posted 13/02/2008 at 7:34am Orato Staff

This story has had almost 5,000 reads overnight! People are obviously intrigued. What do people think of this? I'd like to hear some citizen theories!

Heather Wallace
senior editor

Posted 14/02/2008 at 12:19pm Luyen Dao

For some odd reason i'm left speechless when i read this, i don't know whether to feel concerned or not, it's certainly intriguing in a very odd sort of way, i hope they have, from their own side, a fulfilling life!

Posted 14/02/2008 at 12:50pm Robyn Stubbs

I think you have a good point, Lu. What can you say? But surprisingly, a few people are questioning whether this family is faking it or not. I don't know why anyone would fake something like that, and it certainly looks like they've walked this way their whole lives. Skepticism is healthy, but I don't think there's reason to be skeptical of this situation.

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