This is the third installment in our ongoing series in which we examine foot-related research studies published many decades ago. This study, conducted by Clifford S. James, is called “Footprints and Feet of Natives of the Solomon Islands” and was published in The Lancet in 1939. The researcher, James, worked in the Solomon Islands region for over a decade. This study was conducted out of the Melanesian Mission Hospital on the island of Malaita, in what was then known as the British Solomon Islands. The purpose of this study was to compare the feet of unshod Solomon Islanders with shoe-wearing Europeans and assess possible causes of flat feet.
Disclaimer: Like the other classic studies we’ve reviewed on this site, the language describing research participants in this study, though commonly used at the time of publication, is, in many cases, no longer used or accepted in contemporary society. Please note that the passages from the study we’ve included below have been modified to reflect current norms for addressing individuals or groups.
James begins his article with a physical description of a typical Solomon Islander’s foot. He examined the feet of “65 unselected, average, and normal” Solomon Islanders, and found that
The toes of a [Solomon Islander] are straight, lie parallel with the ground, and are spread out so that the inner and outer borders of the feet are two straight lines. In fact, all the toes lie in lines radiating from the centre of the heel. Occasionally the great toe is abducted, so that the inner border of the foot is concave medially […] On wet slippery ground, where a European's foot would meet with disaster, a [Solomon Islander's] foot remains firm.
James also examined Solomon Islanders’ footprints and compared them to the footprints of a typical European. He found that
The most obvious difference between the two footprints as seen on the beach is that the European's foot is always turned out to various degrees when walking. If a European places his footprints in alignment with those of a [Solomon Islander] he feels that he is walking very "pigeon-toed." A [Solomon Islander's] foot has its inner border pointing straight ahead, with slight variations one way or the other.
As a chiropractor, I’m trained to notice joint alignment, as faulty joint alignment can lead to numerous musculoskeletal problems throughout the body. Foot splay, the turning out of the feet, is a common sight in Western societies and is a clear indication of lower extremity dysfunction. Muscle imbalances, sedentary living, and inappropriate footwear may all contribute to this alignment problem.
James makes an interesting observation about Solomon Islanders’ ability to negotiate small obstacles during gait. He states that
Whatever the nature of the ground, the [Solomon Islander] walks with ease—e.g., a European treading on a pebble with a diameter a third of the width of the foot treads only on the pebble, whereas a [Solomon Islander's] foot "flows" all over and round the pebble and adapts itself to it unconsciously and without discomfort, the sole making contact with the ground behind and on the sides, and the toes in front.
Shoes compress the foot and interfere with the blood supply of the muscles, structures become shortened, and the foot loses its pliability, and becomes less resilient and so less able to adapt itself to varying strains and positions. A [Solomon Islander's] foot, free to spread out, maintains its pliability and can meet these changing circumstances without effort.
The vast majority of us, regardless of where we were born, enter this world with perfect feet. It’s how we treat our feet during our developmental phase and beyond that dictates foot health and appearance, notes James:
The facts that these [Solomon Islanders], while possessing an arch, are free from flat-foot, and that the unshod European's foot, at least in childhood, differs little from that of a [Solomon Islander] suggest that the cause of flat foot lies not so much in the formation of our foot as in our ill-treatment of it.
James comes to the very logical conclusion that
The prevention of flat-foot must be to allow the foot to develop normally by the adoption of suitable foot-gear [emphasis added], which, while it holds the posterior part of the foot firmly, allows plenty of room for the free movement of the toes and the forepart of the foot—i.e., to approach as closely as possible the conditions under which a [Solomon Islander's] foot works.
Join us again next time to learn more about another fascinating classic study and to see what conclusions the researchers draw about the effects of footgear on natural foot function.