The monkey king’s feet and a plea for help

Greg Laden and Ad Hominem are stalking the Aquatic Ape Theory, but I’m on the tail of the Monkey King!

My friend and colleague, the anthroblogorific Lisa Wynn, sent me a link to this amazing video of Jyoti Raj, aka the ‘Indian monkey king’ or the ‘Chitrandurga Spiderman’ (from the name of the fort he is seen scaling). Lisa sent the video link after I revealed during lunch the startling depth of my fascination with the variability of human feet (see my previous post on barefoot running). If you haven’t already seen it, here’s the video: ‘India Monkey King scales new heights.’

Among the reasons I’m glad Lisa introduced me to Jyoti Raj (including that I’m going to use the video in my lecture on humans as primates next week), I’ve been collecting materials on free climbing for my sports book, a chapter I haven’t started to write. She suggested I check out the last few moments of the video, in which Raj appears to use his toes actively to climb. That is, Raj appears in the last few seconds to be climbing with bare feet and actually using his toes to grasp the corners of the structure.

Since I’m spending a fair bit of time thinking about feet these days, I thought I would take the opportunity presented by Mr. Jyoti Raj’s amazing ability to climb – especially the possibility that he might be grasping with his toes when he climbs, and not just resting weight on his feet – to string together a sprawling, loosely-connected consideration of activity-derived anatomical abnormality, or, if you prefer, freaky feet.

This posting, however, is also a plea for help, as I’m really hoping someone out there can help me to find good research, even single case studies, on the kinds of anatomical features that develop with intense training. But I’ll make my plea for help clearer as I go. For now, on to Spiderman…

Jyoti Raj, and human climbing ability

According to a number of accounts that I’ve found (there’s a lot of reposting), 22-year-old Jyoti Raj has only been practicing climbing vigorously for around four years, first realizing his ability while working in construction, scaling the bamboo scaffolding that is ubiquitous throughout Asia. On a trip to the Chitradurga Fort, Raj discovered a passion for climbing the stone ruins. As Sowmya Aji writes:

Meet Jyothi Raj, 22, who uses merely his fingers and toes for grip to scale 100-feet plus walls. With no rope or equipment, he hangs from sheer rock faces with just his teeth gripping a miniscule rock edge, climbs down walls upside down, and swings 80 to 90 feet in the air using just one hand….

“I used to get dreams of a fort and a temple all through my childhood. So I went wandering from place to place searching for it. I reached Chitradurga four years ago and scampered up the fort wall (which is around 70 feet high). I was so depressed by then that I wanted to commit suicide,” Jyothi recalls.

He reached the top of the fort and stood there, ready to jump. “That’s when I realised this was the very fort I used to see in my dreams. I came down. The next day, I saw monkeys jumping around in the fort and just imitated them mindlessly. Since then, I have been climbing this fort from 6 am to 6 pm every day,” he says. (From India Today)

Raj’s abilities are extraordinary, but they’re hardly unprecedented. We have some extraordinary examples of free climbers, like Alain Robert (the ‘French spiderman,’ famous for ‘buildering’ or climbing the outside of skyscrapers) and the late Dan Osman, seen here doing a lightning fast free solo climb of Lover’s Leap in California:

(Ironically, as I wrote this, I flipped over from watching the fourth test in the Ashes on television — Australia was taking a commanding lead in the first innings — and happened upon some amazing video of a guy doing a serious overhang free-soloing.)

One thing that makes the Raj video so interesting to me, however, is that, unlike most Western rock climbers, Raj seems able to use his toes actively in climbing, instead of jamming them into tight, tough-soled climbing shoes. If Alain Robert’s autobiography is With Bare Hands, I’m interested in Raj’s ability to go With Bare Feet.

Barefoot climbing

It’s not all that unusual for indigenous peoples to climb barefoot, in some cases aided with a climbing loop if they are going up trees (for example, when harvesting coconuts from palms). The loop, held by the feet, allows them to use foot pressure to tighten the loop and grip to the trees.

The harvest of bird nests for bird nest soup has traditionally involved incredible acts of climbing, usually barefoot, whether in the Gomantong and Niah Caves in Malaysia, along the coast of Thailand, or by the native Tagbanuas of Northern Palawan in the Philippines. The native Tagbanua climbers in the Philippines are of special interest because unlike the climbers in Borneo, they scale limestone cliffs barefoot to collect swiftlets’ nests rather than using a system of rattan ladders or scaffolding. (If anyone has more good sources of information on these groups, please tell me.)

As I discussed in my previous post on barefoot running, habitually unshod people develop much more resilient feet, with tougher soles, fewer anatomical problems, and a broader spread in the toes and bones. In addition, habitual gripping movements of the toes when walking without shoes leaves them stronger. Barefoot climbers use this potential for toe grasping to their advantage, bringing significant loads onto the toes.
See, for example, the piece Bird Nest Soup by Gunther Deichmann with photos of barefoot climbers in the Philippines scaling cliff faces.

I can’t tell you much about the anatomical effects of this practice, nor about any studies of their abilities, as I can’t locate any research on the feet of barefoot climbers. A while back, I tried to see if I could find anything in the Human Relations Area Files or other databases, but I haven’t managed to land much. This is part of my plea for help, which I’ll get back to at the end, but if you know of any research on barefoot climbers, especially on their feet, I would dearly love to hear where to find it.

Are humans ‘built to climb’?

Before anyone tells me, ‘These people are freaks. This has nothing to do with “normal” human ability,’ I just want to remind you that many of us were once dedicated climbers as children even if fewer of us do it as we get older. Many children climb, some extraordinarily well in spite of their parents’ efforts to keep them closer to ground level. Just one example: this little guy is doing door jams like a champ.

In part I ask if humans are ‘built to climb’ because of the way some people talk about other abilities, such as being ‘built to run.’ This sort of intentionality is just not a feature of natural selection. It makes just as much sense to say that humans are ‘built to climb’ like Jyoti Raj.

The human ability (and inability) to climb is varied and flexible, of course; the degree to which we can make ourselves inept is pretty astonishing. However, the evidence of human climbing ability is especially interesting in light of arguments about the origins of bipedalism in primate adaptations to living in trees, by theorists like Susannah Thorpe of Birmingham (see Thorpe et al. 2007) and Aaron Filler of Harvard (see, for example, his post on, A Human Ancestor for the Apes?, or his book, The Upright Ape: A New Origin of the Species [2007]).

Although some of the claims in the arboreal bipedalism debate get pretty hotted up (such as Filler’s drive-by attempts to redefine the word ‘human’), the basic idea is that human bipedalism is not so much derived from terrestrial quadripedalism as it is distilled down from a versatile locomotion pattern in arboreal life. Hominid evolution didn’t really involve ‘standing up’ so much as it involved specializing in walking and taking the show to the ground.

This ‘first-in-the-trees’ account of the origin of bipedalism is consistent with a number of the theories that seek to explain why being on two feet was an evolutionary advantage in selection; arguing that arboreal bipedalism was the predecessor of terrestrial bipedalism doesn’t so much affect the ‘why’ of hominid locomotion, just the ‘how.’ Instead of transforming the mode of locomotion (from quadripedal to bipedal), the arboreal bipedalism theory suggests that the environmental change from dwelling arboreally to spending more time on the ground led to a shift in where our ancestors were being bipedal, and then how much of their time was being spent on two feet.

This post isn’t really about the arboreal bipedalism hypthesis, but rather about the nature of human bipedalism, and the implications of climbing for human locomotion and the physiology for getting around. To go back to our ‘Indian monkey king’ and barefoot bird nest harvesters, are they and other humans strictly ‘bipedal’? Clearly, even the Chitrandurga Spiderman spends most of his time moving around on two feet on level ground, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of quadripedal movement.

fp_3308610_barm_spiderman_072109When I was doing research on the Afro-Brazilian art Capoeira Angola, a number of capoeira mestres or teachers had their students do exercises involving both ‘bear walks’ and ‘crab walks’ (walking on feet and hands, with the stomach either up or down). One old mestre suggested that he wasn’t so much teaching people how to walk on all four as reminding them of an ability they had lost, reawakening the child’s ability to get around by crawling. Expert capoeira practitioners were extremely comfortable moving about in the game on arms and legs (and heads), although this did not change their day-to-day locomotion. I don’t want to sound like I’m arguing that capoeira practitioners became quadripedal; I never witnessed a capoeira practitioner going about his or her errands walking on hands and feet.

Of course, infants don’t crawl on hands and feet; they do so on hands and knees. But even the extraordinary case of the Turkish family with Unertan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left them unable to walk on two feet (see Ozcelik et al. 2008), demonsrates that quadripedal movement, however, awkward, is certainly possible for humans.

Humans tend to get classified as ‘obligate’ bipedals; that is, unlike some animals, such as gibbons, who are ‘facultative’ bipedals, using two feet to get around when it’s useful, we are alleged to be compelled by our anatomy to use to feet to walk around. Our front limbs are too short, too weak, and anatomical unsuited for something like knuckle-walking, and our spine and other features of our anatomy suggest that, unlike our arboreal ancestors, we don’t have so many locomotion tricks in our bag.

But are we really ‘obligated’ to be bipedal? The example of the Chitrandurga Spiderman (and of the Doorjam Spiderman, as well as capoeira practitioner and even people with Unertan syndrome) suggests that, although bipedal locomotion is certainly our dominant mode of travel, we’re not fully ‘obligated’ to go around on two feet, certainly not when we go vertical. I remember well growing up in a house with a relatively steep staircase between the ground and second floor; my brother and I both would often climb the stairs ‘on all fours,’ much to my mother’s dismay (yet another good reason to do it).

These examples all evidence that, at certain moments, humans are ‘facultative quadripeds,’ capable of moving around in a range of ways like other primates, including things like climbing with hands and feet, scrambling on all four (whether in capoeira or certain other contexts, if we’re trained to do it), and even brachiating, that is, swinging by our arms (such as in ‘The Gladiators’ television shows or when kids use ‘monkey bars’ at a playground – assuming that liability issues haven’t ruled out monkey bars…). Like climbers or capoeira practitioners, all humans could spend a lot more time on all four; or we could use our feet more often to grasp, as do barefoot runners, Chinese fisherman, those with congenital arm amputation (see the previous post on barefoot running), or barefoot climbers seem to be doing in some examples.

The hard and fast functional distinction between our hands and feet — feet for walking, hands for grasping) — and the ‘obligatory’ nature of human bipedalism both turn out to be partially shaped by patterns of activity and expectations. And when we never exercise a capacity for moving on hands and legs, or climbing, or grasping things with our feet, that capacity atrophies along with the physiology that supports it.

Plea for help

Regular readers of will know that I’m working on a couple of books, one of which is on the ways in which sports and sports-like training (like climbing coconut trees for food) can affect human physiology, neurology, perception, and the like. There are some great examples from sports, as we all know that hard training can affect things like bone density, muscle hypertrophy, reaction time, visual acuity, and a host of other traits.

CO13But here’s the problem… I’m actually interested more broadly in finding good case studies of physiological adaptation to unusual or especially arduous patterns of physical behaviour. Like the disabled feet painters, some of the examples might be compensatory; for example, in neurosciences, studies of people born congenitally blind have been crucial for understanding the malleability of the visual cortex, and the possibility that it might be put to different use if a person’s sensory experience and physiology were unusual.

But I’d like to find some more examples of acquired abnormalities, unusual physiological adaptations to skill development. If you know of any good research on unusual cases — like the enlarged hearts alleged in some expert swimmers and cyclists, or unusual feet developed by someone like Jyoti Raj or people born without arms – please pass along the citation to me!

I’ve looked through atlases of abnormal physiology, and the vast majority of cases are either congenital, or the people doing the research don’t seem to have a lot of interest in the etiology of the difference, whether it was ‘innate’ or ‘acquired’ (and I think that those two likely become hard to separate in many cases, especially when compensatory adaptation is involved).

Does anyone out there know of research or even just a good journalistic account of someone who cultivated their own forms of difference like Raj or barefoot runners? (I may be looking with the wrong search engines – if so, please tell me what you’d recommend.)

Anyone who’s able to help out, feel free to contact me here in the comments or email me directly: greg [dot] downey [at] mq [dot] edu [dot] au. If anyone can help me out with a good one, I promise to send you a copy of the book that eventually results from all this.

Stumble It!

Additional reaading
For more on Jyoti Raju, see Sowmya Aji, Meet the Indian rival of spidey, India Today.

Do NOT try this at home: Real life Spider Man dangles fearlessly from 30ft in the air… without a safety harness, at the Mail Online.

Also Jaipal Sharma, undated (2009?) Daily India, ‘Monkey King’ is a cynosure of all eyes at Chitradurga Fort.

Photos and video clip at

More photos (including the ones in this posting of Jyoti Raj) at: 14 Photos Of Real Life Spider Man


Filler, Aaron G. 2007. The Upright Ape: A New Origin of the Species. New Page Books.

Ozcelik, T., Akarsu, N., Uz, E., Caglayan, S., Gulsuner, S., Onat, O.E., Tan, M., and Tan, U. 2008. Mutations in the very low-density lipoprotein receptor VLDLR cause cerebellar hypoplasia and quadrupedal locomotion in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(11): 4232–4236. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0710010105 (pdf of article)

Thorpe, S. K. S., R. L. Holder, R. H. Crompton. 2007. Origin of Human Bipedalism as an Adaptation for Locomotion on Flexible Branches. Science 316 (5829): 1328-1331
 doi 10.1126/science.1140799 (Abstract).

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

10 thoughts on “The monkey king’s feet and a plea for help

  1. Apparently it’s quite commmon in the Czech Republic for people to climb barefoot. (See this article on The North Face website about it: if you look closely in some of the pictures, you’ll see people climbing barefoot (and without ropes, or ‘protection’ as it’s known in the sport).

    Patagonia also had a famous poster of climber John Verm Sherman climbing in flipflops while drinking a beer. Both Patagonia and The North Face may be good companies to reach out to if you’re looking for more stories like Raj’s, the climbing community is pretty small, and I’d imagine they’d be well aware of stories like this.

  2. And I can’t believe I forgot about this woman:

    Tori Allen learned how to climb from a pet monkey in Africa when she was still a toddler. She has unusually long and strong arms and fingers, and her fingers have unusually large knuckles to anchor the muscles she needs to climb. She became the Woman’s World Champion sport climber at 14 in the X-Games. There are several videos at the link, the first is a show from the Discovery Channel called “More Than Human”, which includes a discussion of Tori’s strength and physiological adaptations. Her doctor is quoted, and he claims that her upper-body adaptations are all acquired.

  3. Have you explored any sources on leprosy? I know that many of the street beggars in Tanzania have a repetoire of compensatory behavior for the loss of digits, limbs, tongues, etc.

  4. Have you done any research on Merkel nerve endings? I think they’re supposed to be found chiefly in finger tips and lips, very sensitive parts of the body, associated with the ability to read Braille, for example. I wonder if anyone has studied whether people who develop extreme foot agility have more merkel cells in their feet than average.

  5. mann i love bird’s nest soup too even IF its made from spit!!! <333

    i eat it like once every monthish and used to bought from website sometimes, my mom went back to hong kong and bought a full suitcase of it cause its cheaper there XD

  6. About climbing coconut trees for food, I did this once when I was 18. With a climbing loop, it’s easy unless you have serious physical problems. I was never particularly physically fit — I never could continue running for an entire mile in P.E. class, and neither was I very strong — but it was as easy as climbing up a ten-meter ladder. I guess if you were to do it a lot, you’d get a good leg workout, but is that a very common activity? Coconuts will fall by themselves when they’re ripe, and a single climbing of a tree can yield five or six green coconuts. Maybe if you’re selling them to tourists or sending them to market?

    With regard to barefoot climbing, I found the old Indian trails in Chaco Canyon much easier to walk on barefoot than in shoes. They’re V-shaped grooves worn into the soft tuff by dozens of generations of feet, before the collapse of the civilization, and they’re quite easy to grasp with toes, and somewhat awkward with shoes; they tend to grab the shoes and not want to let go. I wonder if some of the other barefoot-climbing phenomena you mention are similarly facilitated by surface suitability. Vertical rock walls tend to be devoid of foot hazards common on horizontal surfaces: ringworm, feces with parasitic worms, broken glass, sandburrs, goatheads, and the like.

  7. I’ve climbed the same route shown in the Dan Osman video (Bear’s Reach), except that I took hours, had ropes, safety equipment, partners etc.

    Osman, perhaps unsurprisingly, died in a cliff jumping accident.

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