“Come on, poor babe: Some powerful spirit instruct
the kites and ravens
To be thy nurses! Wolves and bears, they say, Casting their
savageness aside, have done Like offices of pity.”
Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale, Act II,
scene 3, line 185.
Stories of children rescued from the wilderness have
for centuries inspired awe, fascination and disbelief.
Tales of children being adopted and nurtured by wolves, bears,
monkeys, and other animals crop up with remarkable regularity. As
the mediæval world gave way to the modern, the wodewose or wild man
of the woods shifted from an archetype of chaos, insanity and heresy
to one of natural harmony and enlightenment, culminating in Rousseau’s
idea of the Noble Savage. But the wild man was both savage and
sublime, an image of desire as well as punishment. Wild or feral
children elicit both heart-rending pity for their abandonment and
wonder for their survival against such terrible odds.
The Legend of Romulus and Remus
Ancient mythology has many stories of children nurtured by
animals, but the first ‘true’ account of a feral child was
recorded by the usually dependable Roman historian Procopius. A baby
boy, abandoned by his mother during the chaos of the Gothic wars in
about AD 250, was found and suckled by a she-goat. When the
survivors returned to their homes, they found the boy living with
his adopted mother and named him Aegisthus. Procopius states he saw
the child himself.
Mystery of Feral Children
Copyright 2004 byAndrew Ward
Throughout ancient and modern times, human history has echoed with curious
tales of wild, hairy beasts emerging from forests on all fours - feral children.
These strange creatures - neither animal nor human - were generally removed from
human society at an early age: lost, stolen or strayed. Isolated from
civilisation, they are then supposedly nurtured by animals or somehow survive on
their own during those vital formative years. Devoid of normal human influences,
they grow up without acquiring speech, often unable to walk, and with distinctly
Whether boys or girls, or whether they've lived in the company of wolves,
monkeys or ostriches - or even on their own - they virtually all have one thing
in common. Their shadowy pasts will, to us, remain forever mysteries.
Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, was immortalised in Truffaut's film L'Enfant
Sauvage, which for many people is their first exposure to the story of a
feral child. Roaming alone in the woods of Lacaune in Southern France at the end
of the 18th century, Victor had been sighted on several occasions by villagers
and was eventually captured by peasants and taken to be displayed in the village
As is so often the case with feral children, Victor didn't take kindly to
being trapped and he quickly escaped, only to be caught again a year later. This
time, he lasted a week in the company of a widow who fed and clothed him, before
he escaped yet again. Thereafter, he would come into contact with human society
much more often, begging food from cottages. But still he remained on his own,
out in the forests, where he would be glimpsed from time to time running and
Victor's wild sojourn ended some two years after he was first discovered, in
the depths of the bitter winter of 1799/1800. By now, he was some 100 km away in
the vicinity of Saint Sernin, and was spotted digging for the potatoes he'd
grown so fond of during his brief return to human habitation. Finally, after
being caught by a local named Vidal, he would never again know the freedom of
Around the age of 12 when he was discovered, Victor had clearly survived in
the wild for at least two years, and presumably a lot longer, on his own. He'd
possibly been abandoned at the age of six by a father who couldn't cope with his
learning difficulties, although we will never know for sure.
Victor couldn't have timed his final capture better: a hot topic of
philosophical debate at that time was Rousseau's theory that a child of nature
would be pure and untainted by the influence of society. But when examined by a
succession of luminaries, Victor was found to be generally surly and
uncooperative: more like a wild beast than a pure soul.
Victor displayed characteristics common to many wild children. Although found
with the tattered remains of a shirt still around his neck, he eschewed clothing
and would rip it off if forced on him. He appeared to endure extremes of
temperature without ill effect, and would snatch and devour food in an
animal-like fashion. He also exhibited the signs that we now associate with some
autistic spectrum disorders - a complete lack of interest in other people,
preferring to spend hours hunched in a corner.
Victor eventually found a champion on Dr Jean Itard, who then devoted five
years to attempting to instruct Victor in human behaviour, as well as impart
skills such as speech, reading and writing. Although Itard did have some
significant successes when it came to humanising Victor, there was much that he
was never able to achieve: in particular, the boy was never able to use any
conventional means of communication. Thus he was unable to tell us who he was,
why he came to be wandering alone in the woods, or explain the origins of a
vicious scar on his neck.
Victor apparently survived on his own, but many other children appear to have
been nurtured by wild animals. Whether this is even physically possible - would
a human baby survive on wolves' milk? - is still debated today. But if we are to
believe the stories as reported to us, we know that these children disappear
into the forests at a very young age - often taken, we are led to believe, by
animal mothers who have lost their own young - and re-appear some years later.
Myth and legend abound with such stories, and the tale of Aegisthus is the
first occasion we hear such a tale recorded by a historian. Procopius, in De
Bello Gothico, wrote that a child, left by its mother following a war
(so often the cause of children's abandonment) was found and suckled by a
she-goat, and found in her company when the survivors returned to their homes.
That was around 250 BCE, and similar tales still reach us today, such as
Andrei Tolstyk, discovered earlier this year, apparently raised by the family
dog after being abandoned by both parents. But it's the story of Kamala and
Amala - the Indian wolf-girls - that is the most intriguing, and which is still
controversial over 80 years later.
We're led to believe that these two girls - not sisters, apparently, but
taken by animals some years apart - were found together in a wolves' den by the
Reverend Singh. Following up stories of two ghosts who'd been seen by villagers,
Singh's intention was to find and shoot these unusual creatures to remove the
villagers' fear. But when he saw then for himself, he realised they were human
children and dug them both out of the den, shooting their wolf-mother.
While at the Reverend Singh's orphanage they became the object of much
attention, resulting in many visitors and a certain level of much-needed
funding. But unfortunately the younger girl Amala died about a year after
capture, and Kamala herself only survived until 1929, when she would have been
around the age of 17. Although when she was first found Kamala crawled on all
fours, tore off any clothes and literally wolfed her food down - grabbing any
chickens unfortunate enough to venture within reach, and devouring them raw -
she did eventually learn to adopt more appropriate human behaviour, and could
even talk, uttering simple phrases.
Opinion on whether their story is a hoax has been divided pretty much ever
since they were found in 1920. Charles Maclean set out to decide the issue one
way or the other, and carried out diligent research into hundreds of original
documents, eventually travelling to India to find out for himself. On the verge
of writing off the story as the invention of Singh, he finally found what was,
for him, sufficient evidence of the Reverend's version of events.
However, I am now informed that a forthcoming book from Serges Aroles - Les
Enfants-Loups (1344-1954) will provide evidence all feral children,
including Kamala and Amala, to be hoaxes, with just one exception: Marie
Angelique Memmie LeBlanc.
Memmie's story starts off much like Victor's: she is found by villagers,
wandering alone in woods, but some 70 years earlier in the Champagne region of
France. Although the first sightings reported two girls, when eventually
captured in 1731, Memmie was on her own, her companion apparently having died
after an altercation between the two.
Painstaking work by Aroles over a period of years has pieced together one
possible solution for the mystery of Memmie LeBlanc. In the second volume of his
work, he suggests that she was a Native American of the Fox tribe in Missouri,
and then paints a picture of her journey across the Atlantic and then through
France, drawing on numerous historical records to support his version of events.
Although already around nine or ten when discovered, Memmie did learn to
speak and a sample of her handwriting survives to this day in the French
national archives. We suspect that she had already learned to talk before her
feral period, and although her origins were never clearly explained she was able
to give some clues as to her past, and Aroles' theory is consistent with these.
Feral children have long fascinated scientists of many disciplines, but
especially those involved in the fields of linguistics and human psychology.
Unable to perform The Forbidden Experiment - that is, to bring a child up
deliberately isolated from human contact - scientists have turned to feral
children to try to understand the mechanisms of human development: how we
develop speech, behaviour, and more fundamentally, exactly what it is to be
human. In particular, they have helped illuminate the nature-nurture debate: the
question of to what extent our capabilities are attributable to what we were
born with, or to how we're brought up.
Unfortunately, there is now such a considerable body of evidence from
children who've suffered horrific confinement and abuse that feral children have
virtually lost their value in this respect. Nevertheless, they still excite both
scientific and lay curiosity, with new discoveries eagerly transmitted around
the world by news agencies.
Copyright 2004 byAndrew Ward
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