“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
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 animal-like behaviour.
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 square.
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 wailing.
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 the forests.
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.