In a small Mexican town, there lives a large family of people who grow thick hair, almost fur, covering their faces, backs and chests. Their neighbors fear them, calling the adults “werewolves,” and the children “little wolves.”
Many family members are consigned to life in circus sideshows.
Scientists announced Tuesday that the hairiness that has plagued four generations of the Zacatecas, Mexico, family is caused by a gene that may be a throwback to an earlier stage in human evolution.
The disease most likely is the source of ancient werewolf legends. Verified victims, who have numbered perhaps 50 since the Middle Ages, often have worked in circuses as “ape men,” “wolf men” or “human werewolves.”
Scientists believe that the occasional appearance of people with furlike hair, or in other cases, tails, or more than two nipples, may be showing the re-emergence of traits that belonged to our animal ancestors.
Biologist Brian Hall of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said the rare appearance of these traits - which scientists call “atavistic” - reveals that the DNA in each of our cells carries a living record of our evolution.
When humans’ ancestors lost traits such as fur or tails, the genetic instructions for making them remained but somehow were inactivated by subsequent genetic changes, he said.
Scientists believe that when something goes wrong with the genes suppressing these old traits, the traits can re-emerge.
Hall’s views appear in the current issue of the journal Nature Genetics, along with an article announcing the location of the gene responsible for the fur.
Hair grows not only on their upper lips and cheeks, but also on their noses, foreheads and eyelids.
“They are very simple people, very nice,” said Dr. Jose Cantu, of the Institute of Social Security and the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. “They have no problem. They have hair on their face. We are their problem.”
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