Feral Child

romulus and remus

jungle book

A feral child (also, colloquially, wild child) is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has no (or little) experience of human care, loving or social behavior, and crucially, of human language. Some feral children have been confined by people (usually their own parents); in some cases this child abandonment was due to the parents’ rejection of a child’s severe intellectual or physical impairment. Feral children may have experienced severe child abuse or trauma before being abandoned or running away.

Feral children are sometimes the subjects of folklore and legends, typically portrayed as having been brought up by animals. Myths and fictional stories have depicted feral children reared by wild animals such as wolves, apes, and bears. Famous examples include Ibn Tufail’s Hayy, Ibn al-Nafis’ Kamil, Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan, and the legends of Atalanta, Enkidu and Romulus and Remus.

Legendary and fictional feral children are often depicted as growing up with relatively normal human intelligence and skills and an innate sense of culture or civilization, coupled with a healthy dose of survival instincts; their integration into human society is made to seem relatively easy. One notable exception is Mowgli, for whom living with humans proved to be extremely difficult. The mythical children are often depicted as having superior strength, intelligence and morals compared to ‘normal’ humans, the implication being that because of their upbringing they represent humanity in a pure and uncorrupted state: similar to the noble savage. The subject is treated with a certain amount of realism in François Truffaut’s 1970 film ‘L’Enfant Sauvage’ (‘The Wild Child’), where a scientist’s efforts in trying to rehabilitate a feral boy meet with great difficulty.

Feral children lack the basic social skills that are normally learned in the process of enculturation. For example, they may be unable to learn to use a toilet, have trouble learning to walk upright after walking on fours all their life, and display a complete lack of interest in the human activity around them. They often seem mentally impaired and have almost insurmountable trouble learning a human language. The impaired ability to learn a natural language after having been isolated for so many years is often attributed to the existence of a critical period for language learning, and taken as evidence in favor of the critical period hypothesis.

There is little scientific knowledge about feral children. One of the best-known examples, the ‘detailed diaries’ of Reverend Singh, who claimed to have discovered Amala and Kamala (two girls who had been ‘brought up from birth by wolves’) in a forest in India, has been proven a fraud to obtain funds for his orphanage. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim states that Amala and Kamala were born mentally and physically disabled.

Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus I sought to discover the origin of language by conducting an experiment with two children. Allegedly, he gave two newborn babies to a shepherd, with the instructions that no one should speak to them, but that the shepherd should feed and care for them while listening to determine their first words. The hypothesis was that the first word would be uttered in the root language of all people. When one of the children cried ‘becos’ (a sound quite similar to the bleating of sheep) with outstretched arms the shepherd concluded that the word was ‘Phrygian’ because that was the sound of the Phrygian word for bread. Thus, they concluded that the Phrygians were an older people than the Egyptians.

Roman legend has it that Romulus and Remus, twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, were raised by wolves. Rhea Silvia was a priestess, and when it was found that she had been pregnant and had children, King Amulius, who had usurped her father’s throne, ordered her to be buried alive and for the children to be killed. The servant who was given the order set them in a basket on the Tiber river instead, and the children were taken by Tiberinus, the river god, to the shore where a she-wolf found them and raised them until they were discovered as toddlers by a shepherd named Faustulus. He and his wife Acca Larentia, who had always wanted a child but never had one, raised the twins, who would later feature prominently in the events leading up to the founding of Rome (named after Romulus, who eventually killed Remus in a fight over whether the city should be founded on the Palatine Hill or the Aventine Hill).

Following the 2008 disclosure by Belgian newspaper ‘Le Soir’ that the bestselling book ‘Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years’ and movie ‘Survivre avec les loups’ (‘Surviving with Wolves’) was a media hoax, the French media debated the credulity with which numerous cases of feral children have been blindly accepted. Although there are numerous books on these children, almost none of them have been based on archives; the authors instead have used dubious second- or third-hand printed information. According to the French surgeon Serge Aroles, who wrote a general study of feral children based on archives (‘L’Enigme des Enfants-loups’ or ‘The Enigma of Wolf-children,’ 2007), many alleged cases are totally fictitious stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.