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Assuming humans remained hunter-gatherers, would it be anatomically possible for us to evolve digitigrade legs? Or, is our anatomy too specialized and are we stuck the way we are?

I am not asking about any advantages or disadvantages of being digitigrade, just if it is possible.

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    $\begingroup$ Possible duplicate of Humanoids with digitigrade legs? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ Of course it is possible. Primates in general have a mostly general-purpose anatomy, showing very much less specialization than other mammalian orders. Which is to say, primates are anatomically closer to the original "general mammal"; and that's why it is much easier to imagine them evolving towards higher specialization. Compare the anatomy of human hands or feet with the anatomy of horse hands or feet; we have all the bones and muscles and tendons that horses have, and many more which they no longer have. Primates can evolve towards specialization, horses cannot re-evolve generality. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ Could we, yes, is it likely, no. being digitigrade does not offer us much in the way of advantages. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 19:24

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We are neither digitigrade nor plantigrade exclusive because as hunter gathers, we have evolved to take advantage of both which is more selectively fit than one or the other. Our feet are designed to flatten out when we need to cover long distances, but when we are ready to stalk, fight, and chase, we go up on our toes just like digitigrade mammals.

If a person were digitigrade exclusive, then he would not be able to keep up with the migration distances of hunter gatherer societies. He would develop neuromas or other foot problems at an early age causing foot pains that would make him vulnerable to predation or death in battle; so, to answer your question, people are more likely to evolve digitigrade exclusive feet now that it is no longer selected against than he would have as a hunter gatherer.

Mammals that evolved to be digitigrade did so not because they were hunter gatherers but because they were quadrupeds. Quadrupeds can distribute their weight over more appendages; so, specializing makes more since for them.

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  • $\begingroup$ But what about Dinosaurs? They were biped that evolved to be digitigrade. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 21:43
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    $\begingroup$ Bipedal dinosaurs and birds have enlarged toes giving them surface area and support like plantigrade feet. Even though they retained the joint structure of digitigrade feet, they have the large foot profile of a plantigrade animal. So, they are using a different solution to the same problem. There are some advantages to ostrich legs, but they evolutionary pressure against the in-between stages in humans would prevent us from getting there as long as we are hunter-gatherers / tool users. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Sep 17, 2019 at 22:04
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Yes, but also no.

Evolution often mops specie's into a corner were they cannot evolve out of traits they have. This is absolutely not a case of that. so yes, because our anatomy is not limited in a way that would prevent it.

But No, because we are in a position were that couldn't possibly give us an advantage. Not because our anatomy is mopped into a corner, but because our current tool set is so much better for everything we actually do that developing digitigrade feet would be a strict downgrade.

Now, things that may seem like "evolutionary downgrades" do happen, but they need a reason. And this is one that doesn't work. In theory, you could have an isolated group of hunter gatherers gan this trait as a mutation, but humans in general are too cosmopolitan, and natural barriers do a laughably poor job of isolating us. The hight of our isolation was our agrarian phase. And do to physics reasons, that was the point of our development were a digitagrade gate would be the most disadvantagous.

It's just doesn't flow from our niche.

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Yes, it is entirely possible. It is a little known fact that a small number of humans are in fact obligate digitigrades. For most this results in extreme disability since ts the result of infantile paralysis arising from causes such as childhood polio. In other cases it seems to have originated as a result of childhood behaviour. In the west it may be more common among women due to starting ballet training at a very young age. In some cases, myself included, it is a complete mystery as to how we got that way. However, in these cases they provide a good counter to all the arguments as to why evolution favoured plantigrade in humans since we are often highly functional physically. In my case, several black belts and a good competition record at just sub Olympic level in several combat sports, as well as the ability to tab 20-30 miles across country in a single day with full pack.

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  • $\begingroup$ "In my case, several black belts and a good competition record at just sub Olympic level in several combat sports, as well as the ability to tab 20-30 miles across country in a single day with full pack." <- You see it a lot in martial artists, wrestling, boxing, etc. because you are much harder to knock over from a digigrade stance and hours a day of training to not get knocked over teaches you to stand this way as the norm. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 20:28

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