Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/August 1892/The Prehensile Foot of East Indians



THE traveler who walks in the native quarters of the cities of India can easily study there all industries in their beginnings, as they were probably practiced in Europe in the middle ages. The shops are usually open, and the workmen can be seen inside; textile industries, pottery, shoemaking, joinering, armoring, jewelry, confectioners—all can be observed in a single street like Chitpore Street, Calcutta. If we take pains to examine attentively the methods of working, we shall be struck by the enormous function played by the lower limb. Whatever the industries, the Indian, squatting or sitting on the ground, works with his feet as well as with his hands; and it might be said that all four of his limbs are in constant exercise. The joiner, for example, has no assistant to hold his plank, but makes his great toe serve that purpose. The shoemaker does not employ a fixed clamp for the shoe on which he is sewing, but holds it in his feet, which change position to suit his convenience, while his nimble hands do the sewing. The metal-worker holds the joint of his shears on his feet in cutting copper.

In the making of wooden combs I have seen the comb held straight up by the feet, while the workmen marked the teeth with one hand and with the other directed the instrument that cut them. The wood-turner directs the hand-rest with his great toes; so, generally, do Egyptian and Arabian turners. In smoothing twine or sewing a bridle the Indians hold the article between the first and second toes. When the butcher cuts his meat into small pieces, he holds his knife between the first and second toes, takes the meat in both hands, and pulls it up across the knife. I have seen a child climb a tree and hold a branch between his toes. These are enough details concerning the constant, universal use of the foot.

In considering this property of the lower limb, it is well to distinguish between the parts that relate, first, to the articulation of the hip, which, being very loose, permits the Indian to squat in such a position that his foot shall not be very far from his hands, so as to make all four participate in the work and permit the whole lower limb to engage in wide movements. The position is very different from that of our tailors or of the Arabs. It brings the knees to a level with the chest. The man is supported on his ischia and his feet; and he keeps in this position for whole hours, while we can maintain it only for a few minutes. It is their way of resting, and we can see them by groups squatting in this manner, and smoking. In the second place, the articulation of the instep and the medio-tarsal permit wide lateral movements of the foot, as in

Fig. 1.—Showing the Enormous Distance between the First and Second Toes in a Tamil of Trichinofoly.

the examples of the shoemaker, joiner, comb-maker, and turner; and on the toes, which are peculiarly flexible, as with the butcher cutting meat and the child climbing trees.

The great toe is capable of considerable lateral movements from the second toe, so that the Indian can easily pick up articles from the ground with his foot, and even exert some force sidewise.

But great as is their skill, there is no movement of opposition between the great toe and the other toes, as there is in the monkey. The great toe has very extended movements of adduction and abduction, and of elevation and depression, but all is limited.[1] The property is frequent among savages and half-civilized peoples. Broca pointed out in 1869 the part which the foot could be made to serve. Morice has remarked that the great toe of the Annamites could be used by them in picking up small objects; and he saw a boatman take his hand from the helm and steer very correctly with his foot, while he rolled his cigarette.[2]

In French and foreign treatises on anthropology I find Ranke's work, entitled Der Mensch, the only one in which the function of the toes as organs of prehension is mentioned; and the feet of Japanese rope-dancers and jugglers have been examined with reference to this point by Luce.[3] But the constant use of the foot in the industry of a people advanced in civilization does not appear to me to have been remarked.

The Ectromelians are able to use their feet after a long and patient education, but they seem to serve the part of supplementary organs. A report has been made to the Society of Anthropology (Bulletin, 1875) concerning the Ectromelian Ducornet, who, with only four toes, painted, holding his brush between his two middle toes. I saw one who was exhibited at Marseilles in 1889. He drank, ate, fired guns, played cards, wrote, and played on several instruments of music with his feet. On a closer examination of him it appeared, as is observed in all similar cases, that there was no movement of opposition of the great toe. A special anatomical peculiarity is connected with this physiological function of the foot—the distance between the first and second toes. Let us look into this feature among the Indians, taking for our example the extremely remarkable type of Fig. 1. It represents the foot of a Tamil in Trichinopoly, in which the space be-

Fig. 2.—Nearest Possible Approach of the First and Second Toes in the same Tamil.

tween the first and second toes was very large from birth. Taking the middle of the extremity of the first and the middle of the second toe, I measured the two points A and B, the distance between which, on a foot placed in its usual position on the ground, was forty-nine millimetres in the right foot and fifty-four millimetres in the left foot. This does not depend upon a simple divergence of the ends of the toes; the base participates in it, and it seems to go back to the metatarso-phalangeal articulation. This distance apart of the toes at the base is fifteen millimetres on the right and sixteen millimetres on the left foot. When this Tamil

was asked to bring the two toes as near together as possible, he could not make them touch; there was still a space between them, as in Fig. 2. All gradations may be observed between this maximum of separation and a foot on which no separation can be perceived in ordinary attitudes.

Among thirty-seven persons examined in Pondicherry, I only found eight in whom there was a separation. It is therefore not Fig. 3.—Normal Position of the Foot. constant in the Indian race. The distance between the ends of the toes may vary in the same person by ten or even by twenty millimetres, accordingly as they are drawn together or apart by the muscles of the foot alone, and without using the hand. They may usually be made to touch when brought together. But it will be observed that they only touch at the ends. At the root the separation persists. The distance between the toes, there, may be diminished, but does not vanish, when they are brought together, and it may be increased when they are spread out.

Figs. 3, 4, and 5 illustrate these facts. They are accurate, being the traces, taken with a pencil, of the toes in different positions; and it should be kept in mind that the separation and the drawing Fig. 4.—The same, with the Toes brought together. together are due solely to the action of the muscles of the foot.

This anatomical disposition may occur in other Indians as well as in Tamils. I have found it among the Bengalis, in three of whom I have drawn it, but it is not frequent among them. With none, however, in all my investigations, have I found it as strongly accentuated as with the Trichinopolitan whom I have used as a type. It appears to be rare among the Singhalese, but their feet have the prehensile property.

An interesting point in the feature is the possibility, by means of it, of using a peculiar patten, which consists of a flat piece of wood cut in the form of the foot, with a peg between the first and second toes, by which the shoe is held on. It is used only in the low castes. Four pairs of these pattens may be seen in the collection of shoes in the Cluny Museum. In two of them the peg is tipped with an ivory button, one having four lobes and the other six, which give them a resemblance to a lotus flower. These lobes open under the pressure of the foot, and thus form a kind of fastening. Pattens of this kind are used only in the Indies. A European would find it very hard to wear them.[4]

The separation of the great toe at the base is not special to the East Indians. M. Manouvrier has reproduced it on two drawings of the feet of Caribs on exhibition in the Jardin'd'acclimatation; but this author has not observed that the foot has any special part with this people as an organ of prehension. Among the numerous casts of feet in the museum of the Société d'Anthropologie are some very interesting impressions of the feet of Annamites, presented by M. Mondière. The separation on the foot of one of these Annamites, named Van, is very marked. It measures twelve Fig. 5.—The same, with the Toes spread out. millimetres at the base of the first and second toes, and forty-one millimetres, taking the middles of the nails as points of measurement, at the tips (Fig. 6). On the impression of the foot of another Annamite, named Thi-Finhi, the separation is less notable, but is still four millimetres at the base and forty-one millimetres at the ends; while a third impression, still by M. Mondière, shows a still different degree of separation. This separation has been noticed frequently among the Annamites, as well as the prehensile faculty of the foot. They therefore enjoy that property in common with the Indians.

It does not follow, however, that this faculty is common to all peoples that go barefooted, or even to all savages. There are at the museum castings of three feet of negroes in which nothing like it appears; an American Indian foot from the lower Amazon, the gift of Dr. Crevaux, also normal; two feet of young Bushmen, normal likewise; and thirteen feet of Fuegian men and women, normal. Only in the cast of the right foot of one young man did I find a separation of four millimetres at the base of the first two toes. The École d'Anthropologie has several traces of feet taken by M. Manouvrier among Fuegians, Araucanians, Omahas, and Arabs of Algeria and Morocco, in none of which is there any example of this anatomical peculiarity. I have not observed it in any European or in any white child.[5] The habit of walking barefooted may produce a slight divergence of the great toe, but not at the base. The function of prehensibility must therefore be considerably developed for such a divergence to exist. Still, Fig. 6.—The First and Second Toes of the Annamite Van. heredity appears to have a part in it; for we do not observe it except among peoples who have exercised the function from a remote antiquity. It would be interesting to dissect a foot presenting this formation and compare it with the foot of a white. "We should most likely find the oblique and transverse abductor muscles very highly developed. It is a current fact that exercise strengthens the muscles. It would also be desirable to learn the origin of the separation at the base of the first and second toes. It can not be caused, as in the monkey, by the head of the first metatarsal playing on that of the second, for there is no movement of opposition here. It all takes place in the metatarso-phalangeal articulation. M. Testut, in a work on the Quaternary skeleton of la Chancelade, remarks that the anterior articular surfaces of the metatarsi which are destined for the phalanges are more extended, in length as well as in breadth, than those which have been observed on the metatarsi of European races. Unfortunately, we have data only for the articular surfaces of the last four metatarsi—the first, the one that interests us, having probably been suppressed. M. Testut concludes that this disposition is related to the mobility of the toes on the metatarsus—a mobility which has probably been considerably diminished in man since he has made his foot exclusively an organ of support. Whether the skeleton of the Indian is like this, and whether the separation of the base of the toes can be explained in this way, suggest hypotheses which dissection alone can verify.

The examination of the prehensile foot suggests forcibly the thought of comparing it with the foot of the monkey. The difference between the opposable foot of the monkey and the foot of man has been variously explained. The non-transformists base upon it an argument against the application of the transformist theory to man. Some Darwinians believe that if man used his foot constantly and generally as a prehensile organ, an opposition of the great toe would be gradually evolved in the adaptation of the organ to that function. The preceding study, however, proves that this is not the fact. Among a people who have for centuries commonly used their feet as a prehensile organ no movement of opposition has been produced; while in some persons an adaptation to the new function has been observed, namely, a separation of the great toe and wide and strong lateral movements, but only lateral—a pincers-foot, not a hand-foot. It will be seen, on reflection, that the condition could not be otherwise.

In walking, the weight of the body is borne on the heads of the five metatarsi, but mostly on the head of the first one. If that was not united solidly to the second metatarsus, and could turn around it as is done in the hand, it would give way every time the foot touched the ground, and the foot would want a sufficient internal point of support; walking would still be possible, but it would be hard and laborious—occasional, and not a habitual normal act. It is thus with the monkey, which is supported solely on the outer edge of the foot. Even the anthropoid walks rarely and awkwardly; its foot, adapted to living in the woods, has the opposition movement convenient for climbing easily; it has a foot-hand. The man who, continuing to walk, likewise wants a prehensile foot, can not enjoy this movement, which is incompatible with walking. He satisfies himself with lateral movements between the great toe and the second toe, or a pincers-foot. All this is simply a consequence of the general biological law of the adaptation of the organ to the function.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

A curious, secretive proceeding of swans is described in Nature by Jessie Godwin-Austen. The cygnets having been just hatched out, the male bird picked up an empty half egg-shell lying beside the water and carefully carried it to the edge of the water some twenty feet from the nest, filled it with mud, and pushed it into the river, where it sank to the bottom; and then repeated the performance with the other half egg-shell. On returning to the nest the last time, he placed a few sticks across the small track he had made. As no other pieces were seen about the nest, while five cygnets were hatched, it is inferred that the bird had done the same with all the egg-shells.

A paper by Mr. Edward Dobson, in the Australasian Association, on Human Habitations in Prehistoric Times, was devoted to showing that, while rectangular forms prevailed in the early buildings of the East and in North America, the circular form had prevailed throughout Africa (with the exception of the Nile Valley) and through Switzerland and northern Europe, in Lapland and Greenland; and raised an inquiry as to the causes of these facts.

  1. Sir Richard Wallace says that, with all the savages he ever saw, he never observed movements of opposition.
  2. Bulletin de la Societé d'Anthropologie, session of the 18th of February, 1875.
  3. Travelers have often mentioned similar facts in their narratives. Horsemen in Abyssinia, according to G. Pouchet, hold the straps of their stirrups between the first and second toes. In New Guinea, says D'Albertis, natives secure themselves in walking by hooking their great toe to a root or a bit of rock.
  4. The pattens worn in China, Japan, and Burmah somewhat resemble these. They, too, can be seen in the Cluny Museum. Three of the specimens there were held to the foot by strings, one part of which was fixed to the shoe between the first and second toes, while the other part, passing over the back of the foot, ended in the side of the shoe. These sandals resemble those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as we see them in works of art. The separation of the great toe from the others in Japanese stockings is explained by this construction. It is to enable the pattens to be put on. But the abduction force of the great toe is not utilized in these as it is in the Indian pattens. The shoe is held by strings to the sole of the foot.
  5. The movements of the toes are well developed in new-born children; but I have never observed, in children's hospitals, any trace of opposition.