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How Igorots Got Their Tails

Up to this day, people still think Igorots have tails. Here's the truth behind the 1925 photograph.

 |  3 min read

Photograph of an Igorot with a tail in the Bontoc Province of the Philippine Islands. | John Freeman, 1925
Photograph of an Igorot with a tail in the Bontoc Province of the Philippine Islands. John Freeman, 1925

The Igorots have long suffered from discrimination in the Philippines, which has included the claim that they have tails. Up to this day, the word "igorot" alone seems to be a joke or an insult.

Photograph of an Igorot with a tail

Way back 1925, in the fourth edition of his book I Believe in God and in Evolution, William Keen included a short account of "Human Beings With Tails":

Human Beings With Tails

The literature as to tails in human beings is extensive. Cases have been reported from every continent, and, including the United States, from almost every important nation in the world. Virchow and Sir Arthur Keith, the distinguished Curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, London, than whom there can be no better authorities, and other well known writers, refer to cases of genuine tails. Some of them contain no bones, but others have rudimentary vertebrae, with complete joints between them. The microscope also shows in some cases sufficient muscular fibers to have made the tails capable of movement.

These tails are continuations of the lowest vertebrae. The 'coccyx,' the usual termination of the spine, is the representative in man of these occasionally well developed tails. All of us have potential tails. In early embryonic life of man there is a well developed tail which, however, soon shrivels, leaving only the coccyx.

It is a very significant fact that the anthropoid apes, gorilla, chimpanzee, etc., like man, have also lost their tails. The monkeys, much more distant from man have retained their tails.

Keen then provided a photograph that showed a person with a tail. It was captioned: "Photograph of an Igorot in the Bontoc Province of the Philippine Islands. It was taken early in 1925 by Mr. John Freeman, (Dr. Keen's grandson), whose guide and interpreter persuaded the man to be photographed. The tail is about five inches long. It also shows in the shadow."

Igorot with tail. Photo by John Freeman
Igorot with tail. Photo by John Freeman

The Correction

But soon after publication, Keen sent a rather embarrassed "Correction" to the Journal Science (Apr 2, 1926). After noting that he still believed there were cases of humans with tails, he wrote:

"The correction I wish to make is as follows: In my book "I Believe in God and in Evolution," I have included in the fourth edition a photograph of an Igorot with a tail, which I vouched for as I understood that it had been photographed by my own grandson, Mr. John Freeman.

A few days ago within a few hours of each other, I received letters from Dr. Ales Hrdlieka, of the division of physical anthropology of the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, and Mrs. Ella F. Grove, who a year ago had been doing some work in the Philippines for the National Research Council. Both of these correspondents stated that the Bureau of Science in Manila had shown them the original of this photograph which showed that it was a fake photograph, the tail having been added to the original by a photographer, I suppose as a joke.

On communicating with my grandson I find that I misinterpreted his letter and that he did not photograph this Igorot.

My argument that human tails (of which I have shown there are very many undoubted instances) prove our animal ancestry is not in the least disproved by my having unfortunately used a photograph which further investigation has shown to be a fraud, for there are plenty of genuine tails.

My whole object is to state the truth, and when any statement I have made is proved to be wrong, I wish to be the very first person to disclose the error.

Dr. Hrdlieka adds "As to the occurrence of tails of course I am with you in every particular."


Born Igorot, Die Igorot


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