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or, Anatomically Correct Weebles

A group of behaviorally modern humans was cut off from the rest of the earth-like planet millennia ago. (Myths hold that the separation occurred four to five ka BP, once humankind had developed cattle ranches, brass, writing, and cities. Archaeology is inconclusive about this separation date; it may have been far earlier.) Due to a founder mutation, their descendants' legs do not develop, and the body ends at the hip. Otherwise, they stay close to normal human physiology, or at least as close as photographer Kevin Connolly and gymnast Jennifer Bricker do. They typically walk on their fists and bottom with a symmetric swing-through gait, placing both fists and swinging the torso between the arms at roughly 1 m/s.

Would it be plausible for these people to remain at the apex of the food chain or otherwise thrive long enough through hunter-gatherer to reestablish agriculture and develop industry? If so, how might they adapt? If not, what technological level would they have to reach before the separation for them to continue to thrive, and how would a founder population of four husband-and-wife pairs carry the knowledge of this technology?

I'm aware that they would need to solve at least the following problems:

  • escaping danger or finding a meal when they can't run quite as fast as baseline humans
  • carrying things, especially offspring

What other problems might be worth mentioning?

A real-world analog might be deafness in Martha's Vineyard, where people worked around the impairment by inventing a sign language.

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  • $\begingroup$ Running fast is less of an issue than running for any length of time. Our legs are supremely efficient at recovering almost all the energy from running allowing humans to keep up a running pace almost indefinitely. We are almost unique in that regard. For an example of what a difference it makes, try running a mile in sand vs on hard ground. Running on your hands would not have these advantages, humans would likely adapt to more wait and pounce tactics rather than our traditional run it down and club it with an antelope bone technique when hunting. $\endgroup$ – John Meacham Nov 25 '14 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ I think that having genitals exposed and at ground level could be a problematic combo. $\endgroup$ – beppe9000 Sep 14 '16 at 0:53
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I might be running the risk of offending people with disabilities here - if that happens, it's entirely unintentional and I apologize in advance.

I don't think they'd have problems remaining at the top of the food chain, but what I'm sure of is that they'd be much more cooperative with each other. This isn't about whether some creature evolved through natural selection would survive - it's about removing a very important adaptation from an existing one abruptly.

I assume their culture would change to make room for the very high need they'd have to help each other - they wouldn't be helpless if alone, especially with the proper technology (such as wheelchairs), but the same dangers would escalate a lot faster (an example is running away from dangers, as you mention).

Rowanas however makes an excellent point about running, in the comments. Since arms do extend beyond the hips, running can be performed with hands alone, albeit with a smaller stride - check his comment for the full idea.

This doesn't necessarily mean they would be less likely to be hostile or unhelpful, just that it would be much more frowned upon between them.

Overall, if they are already aware and capable of tool use and technology, I don't think it'd be long until they've adapted their tools and life to work with their lack of legs. Transportation wouldn't be that huge of a problem if everything is made to work that way.

Hunter-gatherers

If they're starting out at this level, basic problems need to be solved quickly, such as being in constant contact with the ground - rough terrain would be dangerous and hard to cross. Simple solutions such as chest-skis or chestplates made of wood could help. That of course requires cutting wood - it might be easier to do with a hoe-like tool instead of an axe, to take advantage of being on the ground for resistance and so it can be used without other aids.

They'd also probably smooth out the land around dwellings a lot more to make it easier to move around. Housing would probably be quite a bit shorter too - it would be easier to build and use.

Foraging shouldn't be much different, but picking food off trees would require a lot more effort than it does for someone with legs, since there's nothing to hold you as you grab for a higher place - it can be worked around using leather harnesses however.

Which brings us to hunting - basic animal food would probably caught with traps, with larger animals being herded into traps or hunted in packs to prevent dangers from getting attacked by wild boars while lying down or getting trampled. Alternatively, herds that wander close to trees could be killed from above by climbers.


Addendum by tepples

This contrasts with the solutions that real-world humans of this era found, one of which was stalking mammoth. Having discovered that, inferior solutions or those harder to come up with would have been overlooked or just not used. While humans without legs would not be able to run behind mammoths throwing spears with their arms effectively, they can still stalk prey covertly in groups, trap it or use other techniques that for us are inefficient.

This would limit their food supply, assuming their approaches are inferior, which would limit the sizes of their populations and hence the growth rate of their species. But I don't think that it can be said to be definitively impossible to survive the hunter & gatherer phase, or to say that not having legs is a death sentence for a species of otherwise human capability.


Rowanas has commented on the tool usage and climbing capabilities as well, check the comments section.

Farming

Plowing can be performed through harnesses, but the taller plants might introduce difficulties. Perhaps frames, like scaffolding, could be built within crops to allow for this, like shelves along the vegetation. This, like many of the previous approaches, would probably make performing these activities hard enough to delay progress, unless said humans were aware of technology like this and could come up with these ideas quickly.

Further progress

I think that once there's enough wood to create wheelchairs, wheelbarrows and the like, these humans would progress a lot faster. They might have a problem finding animals small enough to tame for use as beasts of burden (transportation and field work).

Given the need, people can learn to walk on prosthetics and crutches fairly well - the only problem here would be that they'd never have learned how. Unless they change genetically however, they should maintain the balance adaptations we have and all the rest so they could learn to walk on prosthetics and crutches quickly enough to use them. This wouldn't allow them to run, but with entire populations of people using these things daily, the techniques on making them comfortable and robust would develop quickly.

Given time enough to develop metallurgy, they should be able to create more complex spring-loaded mechanisms to allow for stride-capable prosthetics. This wouldn't get around to them having to use their hands to walk (since they have no legs at all) but it would make it easier and some might manage to run (although at this point it wouldn't be much help).

However, walking like this would probably be just for outside work - by this point, everything the use should be accessible without having to walk - perhaps they'd have wheelchairs at most for every-day use, which are easier to use and more practical.

Modern levels

I don't think much would stand in their way after they're comfortable moving around and dealing with the natural surroundings. Their buildings and technology would adapt and in order to use your arms properly you don't need to stand on legs, just be upright so you've got free room to move. I wouldn't put industry and even space-grade technology beyond them. Legs are very important, but unless we're talking about primitive people, they should be able to cope just fine, but it would still take centuries at least, assuming they maintain some cultural memory of what the rest of human society was like.

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    $\begingroup$ Ok, cheers: I feel strongly that running wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue as you indicate. While their stride would be shorter, running on the palms of the hand shouldn't be much more difficult then running on the balls of the foot. The legs are somewhat designed for it, but a change like that would encourage very strong arm muscles and powerful shoulders, which would probably make a variety of tasks much easier than we're used to, especially climbing and building. $\endgroup$ – Rowanas Oct 7 '14 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ Compared to us, these people would have nearly the same access to levers, but a vastly more powerful frame and also a significantly lower centre of gravity than we enjoy, which would put them at a massive advantage in a variety of physical tasks. Climbing would scarcely even need a harness, because climbing hand over hand would be no major thing. I've seen a paralypmic athlete climb up a rope like he was abseiling (youtube link pending), and an entire society like that would take that as a baseline. Pulling tall crops down to hacking height wouldn't even be a challenge. $\endgroup$ – Rowanas Oct 7 '14 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think we would survive the hunter & gatherer era, as humans in their natural environment are hunting by stalking. We stalked mammoths across the tundra for miles upon miles until the mammoth collapses from exhaustion. We did this with nearly every mammal prey when all he had was spears. Try doing that with no legs! $\endgroup$ – NachoDawg Jun 19 '15 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ @NachoDawg Yeah but that's not the only prey available and that's not the only kind of stalking or hunting available. Let me put it this way: humans of that era found solutions to their food problems, one of which was stalking mammoth. Having discovered that, inferior solutions or those harder to come up with, would have been overlooked or just not used. While humans without legs would not be able to run behind mammoths throwing spears with their arms effectively, they can still stalk prey covertly in groups, trap it or use other techniques that for us are inefficient. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Jun 19 '15 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ @NachoDawg This would limit their food supply, assuming their approaches are inferior, which would limit the sizes of their populations and hence the growth rate of their species, but I don't think that it can be said to be definitively impossible to survive the hunter & gatherer phase, or to say that not having legs is a death sentence for a species of otherwise human capability. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Jun 19 '15 at 15:19
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Don't think of it as a disability, think of it as an advantage.

It's not, how do you walk with no legs... rather how do you move around, now that say half your unnecessary body mass has been removed?

I'm thinking that:

1) We'd return to the trees (if possible). Swinging above things sounds much nicer than sliding along the ground. Even in your modern home the ceiling would be your floor. Note safety would be important, unlike apes we have only two arms, so falls will be far more common.

2) We'd be far more innovative. Instead of a hunter-gather running with a stick trying to poke an animal, traps would probably have far greater use. Farming would make more sense, earlier on. So on and so forth. Thanks to 1) we'd also have a better 3d mindset.

3) We'd probably (appear to) be far more efficient. Between greater need to innovate, and fewer base needs (physically smaller houses, less food needed to maintain dormant state), and great costs to be active I'd expect many aspects of life to be close and organised.

A random thought exercise of how a house could look - I'd expect it to be 3D, maybe with bedrooms at top, cooking/communal in middle, and utilities/man shed/storage etc to be at the bottom. I can imagine that every house might be connected through aerial 'walkways', with heavy good transported on the road beneath.

Carrying large quantities is hard, so I suspect well designed backpacks/tactical vests to be popular. More emphasis on light travel (e.g. fewer needs, fast food, camping food) in day to day life.

Of course, these are still humans, so I would suspect that many human inventions would still occur - e.g. wheeled ground transportation - would occur, though the specifics of how, why, when and impact could differ greatly.

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No, a community of legless people will not thrive. If they survive at all, it will be the very opposite of thriving unless the environment is incredibly rich and productive and lacking large predators.

We cannot extrapolate from a handful of cases of legless people in a highly technological society to a low-tech society where everyone is legless. Nicholas James Vujicic may be inspirational, but he's also rare. For every one of him, there are probably dozens of legless people that nobody makes inspirational videos about because their life is uncomfortable, painful and difficult and not the slightest bit inspirational. And they are the lucky ones living in a modern society that is relatively compassionate and has the 99.9999% four-limbed majority around to do the heavy labour, they're not living in a hunter-gatherer or bronze-age farming community.

The idea that being legless is an advantage or that they would have a "massive advantage" over legged people is simply not credible. In the entire history of life on earth, not one species of land mammal has evolved to lose its legs. Quite a few lizards and reptiles have lost their legs (e.g. snakes) but no mammals. There are examples of bipedal species losing the use of their front limbs (e.g. T Rex, flightless birds) but not of their lower limbs. As for the suggestion that being legless would be an advantage to tree-dwellers, I can only imagine you have never watched monkeys or apes in a tree. Legs are used extensively, and no tree-dwelling primate species have lost its legs. Not even those that have lengthened arms and shortened legs.

The idea that they would have a massive advantage at physical tasks is, frankly, ridiculous. A lower centre of gravity is advantageous for some tasks, but for many tasks not being able to brace with your legs is a major disadvantage. Try sitting down cross-legged and digging a hole in the ground using just your arms -- it is enormously harder than using both arms and legs.

Others have already described some of the technological developments that a society of legless people would need to develop in order to mitigate the ill-effects of lacking legs. Even with these technologies (backpacks, etc.) they will still be disadvantaged compared to people with legs. If a tribe developed legs, they would out-compete the legless tribe very rapidly -- if not just slaughter them in war. Even without legged humans around, the disadvantages of having no legs may be fatal, depending on just how hostile the environment is. Especially with a founder population of just eight people. E.g. when attacked by a predator, you cannot run away and fight back at the same time. You cannot even wave your hands to make yourself seem big while backing away.

I'm also not buying the sociology. Four or five millennia ago, legless children were almost certainly going to be abandoned or killed at birth. With just eight adults in a strange and hostile environment, with no modern technology to help them, they won't have the resources, time or likely the ethical values to try to raise "cursed" babies -- and even if they tried, their life expectancy would probably be very low.

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Per Robert Harvey's suggestion, I've made a community wiki for near-answers found in "disposable" comments.

Rowanas wrote:

Running wouldn't be much of an issue. While their stride would be shorter, running on the palms of the hand shouldn't be much more difficult then running on the balls of the foot. The legs are somewhat designed for it, but a change like that would encourage very strong arm muscles and powerful shoulders, which would probably make a variety of tasks much easier than we're used to, especially climbing and building.

Compared to us, these people would have nearly the same access to levers, but a vastly more powerful frame and also a significantly lower centre of gravity than we enjoy, which would put them at a massive advantage in a variety of physical tasks. Climbing would scarcely even need a harness, because climbing hand over hand would be no major thing. I've seen a paralypmic athlete climb up a rope like he was abseiling (YouTube link pending, but see Paralympian Paul Nunnari Strong 30m rope climb, or Wheelchair Legless Rope Climb and Nawid und Art Rope Climb Wheelchair - Suprfit.TV where they actually carry their wheelchairs up the rope), and an entire society like that would take that as a baseline. Pulling tall crops down to hacking height wouldn't even be a challenge.

In an answer about bipedal aliens, TechZen wrote:

If you only need one limb touching at a time and you don't actually run fast, say you live in a tree or a cluttered ground environment, then you really only need two limbs for basic support and motion. One leg supports while the other provides control. The other two can be tasked to other things like manipulating the environment.

Or one butt and one hand, with the other hand free. Or sit on the ground or on a branch with the back against the trunk, with both hands free. From here it's a short step to weaving baskets to carry things.

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There are a lot of good answers on this already, but I would be remiss if I didn't suggest looking at Nicholas James Vujicic for inspiration. His life is basically the ultimate dedication to just how powerful the human mind is, with or without 4 functioning limbs.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8jhcxOhIMAQ

Its worth 4 minutes.

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    $\begingroup$ Mr. Vujicic has modern tech and modern sanitation backing him up though. So do Mr. Connolly and Ms. Bricker, who were mentioned in the question. But how well would they have done in the stone or bronze age? $\endgroup$ – Damian Yerrick Sep 29 '15 at 17:45

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