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Do humans ever have tails?

Dear Cecil:

A couple of years ago, a rumor was going around that Evonne Goolagong, being an Australian aborigine, had a tail. This was plainly absurd, but I do remember reading about a tribe of tailed people living the Philippines. Is this so? If so, where are they?

Roger S., Phoenix

Cecil replies:

Dear Roger:

The tailed tribes of the Philippines were the subjects of a famous hoax of the 1900s (these days, the only hoaxes we get are on the order of Jimmy Carter–times have changed, and not necessarily for the better).

In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army sent exploring parties through the Philippine jungles, looking, no doubt, for vast oil deposits or diamond mines in the territory that the defeated Spaniards had turned over to America. Reports filtered back to the U.S. that the Army teams in the Luzon jungles had stumbled over an Igorot (head-hunting) tribe equipped with four-foot tails. According to the rumor, the tribe was quickly isolated by the government before its members had a chance to slip into the mainstream of Philippines society and pollute the gene pool.

A photograph of a tailed tribesman was published, supposedly over the firm protests of the government–genocidal programs, then as now, were Top Secret. The photograph made its way onto postcards that were gleefully hustled to American tourists by the Filipino natives.

Eventually, the story got so far out of hand that the United States National Museum decided to open an investigation. The Museum’s researchers turned up another copy of the notorious photograph, this one showing the tribesman without his tail. Anthropologists speculated that the original confusion may have resulted from imperfect observation of Igorot rituals: one tribal dance required animal costumes, which were made, of course, complete with tails. After the faked photo was exposed, the rumor died a quiet death.

Still, at one point in his/her life, every human being does have a tail. Human embryos have a tail that measures about one-sixth of the size of the embryo itself. As the embryo develops into a fetus, the tail is absorbed by the growing body, but some traces remain even in adults. Occasionally, a child is born with a “soft tail,” described by one embryologist as containing “no vertebrae, but blood vessels, muscles, and nerves, of the same consistency as the short tail of the Barbary ape.” Modern procedures allow doctors to eliminate the tail at birth, but some children have had to learn to live with them. The longest human tail on record belonged to a twelve-year-old boy living in what was then Indochina; he boasted nine inches, which was probably enough to make him very, very popular.

Cecil Adams

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