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The science behind Ostrich People

What comes to your mind when you hear ostrich people?

Well! they don’t look like an ostrich.

They are called so by some people as their feet appear, somewhat like- an ostrich feet.

These are vaDoma people also known as Bantwana tribe (Bantwana means “descendants”) Doma or dema who live generally in Sipolilo and Urungwe districts of the Kanyemba region in Northern Zimbabwe. The region is located around the basin of the Mwazamutunda river or Zambezi river. They speak in the Dema language.

Strange Appearance of vaDoma

Their middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned in. The condition resulted in the tribe being referred to as the “two-toed” or “ostrich-footed” tribe. However, not everyone suffers from this condition.

It affects only the feet of one in four children within the vaDoma population. They can still walk but with some difficulty. It’s extremely difficult for them to run. However, it is supposed that this condition helps them to climb trees. They can not wear shoes.

Those with this condition are not considered as disabled and are well integrated within the community.

This tribe is regarded as the only non-agricultural society with stereotypes naming them ‘stone age cave-dwellers’. Their lifestyle consisted of hunting but now it’s problematic for them as they do not have the license to hunt. Some of them have now abandoned their lifestyle of hunting.

Science behind these Ostrich People

This condition of their feet is what we call “Ectrodactyly” which is an inherited dominant genetic mutation. Some have theorized that this mutation may have an adaptive role if it aids in tree climbing. This mutation affects only the feet of one in four children within the vaDoma population.

lobster claw like feet of vadoma tribe suffering from ectrodactyly
Feet of vaDoma Tribe, ©Wikimedia Commons

It’s more likely that the defect remains prevalent in the Vadoma because of a small genetic pool among the Vadoma. Since they remain mostly isolated and the tribal laws forbid them to marry someone outside the community.  

Ectrodactyly occurs at lower rates throughout the world and can be caused by a number of human gene defects, a common one being a mutation of the 7th chromosome.

vadoma tribe of zimbabwe with their claw like feet due to ectrodactyly

More About Ectrodactyly

Derived from Ektroma meaning abortion and Daktylos (finger), involves the absence of one or more central digits (fingers or toes) of the hand or foot and is also known as split hand/split foot malformation (SHFM). This may give the hands and/or feet a lobster claw-like appearance.


Ectrodactyly can be caused by mutations to 7q as an alteration through deletion or translocation on a chromosome. It can sometimes be associated with hearing loss.

Each chromosome has a short arm designated “p” and a long arm designated “q”. Chromosomes are further sub-divided into many bands that are numbered. For example, “chromosome 7q20-21” refers to a location between bands 20 and 21 on the long arm of chromosome 7. The numbered bands specify the location of different genes present on each chromosome.

SHFM type 1 is the only form of split hand/ malformation associated with sensorineural hearing loss.  

A large number of human gene defects can cause Ectrodactyly. The most common mode of inheritance is autosomal dominant form, while autosomal recessive and X-linked forms occur more rarely.  Dominant genetic disorders require only a single copy of an abnormal gene for the expression or appearance of the disease. Ectrodactyly can also be caused by duplication on 10q24.

Table-01, Showing types of Ectrodactyly and location of mutation below

Five Types (Non-syndromic SHFM)
SHFM1mapped to chromosome 7
SHFM2mapped to the X chromosome
SHFM3mapped to chromosome 10
SHFM4mutation in the TP63 gene, mapped to chromosome 3
SHFM5mapped to chromosome 2

Affected Populations with Ectrodactyly

Split hand/split foot malformation affects males and females equally. Frequency is estimated at one out of 90,000 newborns.

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There are different myths.

MYTH 01:

Some people of the tribe believe that their ancestors were bird-like beings who came to earth from the stars system of Sirius and mated with females on earth and first established their colonies on a planet they refer to as Liitolafisi within our solar system.

MYTH 02:

Another mythology says that their ancestors emerged from a Baobab tree, and as soon as they evolved they started walking upright and immediately moved on to their routine of hunting and gathering fruits of the land.

Social message:

We should never spread any stereotypes and no one should call them ostrich people. Remember, these are people just like us and they have names. They have their own believes and individuality.

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  1. I came across a podcast on YouTube about the VaDoma tribe of Zimbabwe, I found this very educative and would like to learn more about these people.

  2. At first i never heard of VaDoma tribe until early this year when a friend introduced me to this podcast on YouTube about this strange tribe. I watched the podcast and found it very educative, and would like to learn more about these people. Thank you

  3. Never heard of the Vadoma people not until I came across it few minutes a go. Thank you for been such an innovative human. However,I’d love to more about the vadoma people, I mean their tribe is really interesting perhaps you’d be showing more light on my research work.

  4. Dear Mr.Rahul, your posts are being very innovative and informative. Do continue to post such things which will educate people.

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