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Feral Children

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An article in Scientific American suggested that humans have been around in their present form for 120,000 years. However, we only discovered language and became technologically creative as late as 40,000 years ago. So what were humans like before that? And what would we be like if the influence of our current society was not present?

Feral children are children who have spent much of their formative years in the wild, without any contact with other humans for a significant period of their lives. Cases of feral children are thankfully rare, but are of immense interest from a scientific and educational point of view. Feral children provide data which help to answer a number of questions:

  • How close is human nature to the nature of an animal?

  • What aspects of human nature are genetic, and what aspects are learned?

  • What does consciousness mean?

  • Could we learn how to speak to animals, or could we teach animals to speak to humans?

Studies of feral children in the past have led to breakthroughs in the education of people with learning disabilities, and indirectly have led to the development of sign-language and Braille.

Stories of feral children pop up every now and again in the media, but most stories are uncorroborated, and many are pure fantasy. However, there are a few cases which did occur in history which were the subject of intense scientific scrutiny.

Here are a few of the celebrated cases in the history of feral children.

Wild Peter

In 1724, near the German town of Hamelin, a boy, described as a naked brownish black-haired creature, was seen running up and down in the fields. The boy was enticed into town, and once there immediately became a subject of great interest. He behaved like a trapped wild animal, eating birds and vegetables raw, and when threatened, he sat on his haunches or on all-fours looking for opportunities to escape. Peter was soon made the possession of King George I of England, where he lived the rest of his life. During his life Peter never learned to talk, showed a complete indifference to money or sex, and was never seen laughing. However he loved music, could be taught a number of menial tasks, and when he once got lost, he found his own way back home. Peter died in 1785.

Victor, The Wild Child of Aveyron

Victor, a boy of about 11 or 12, was discovered foraging for roots and acorns in the woods near Aveyron, France in 1799. Victor was taken to Paris, where he appeared to be human only in appearance. Victor behaved like an animal, ate rotten food with pleasure, was incapable of distinguishing hot from cold, and spent much of his time rocking back and forth like a caged animal. Victor was taken into the care of the brilliant scientist, Dr Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, who dedicated himself to the education of the boy. Victor proved to be a very difficult subject. Over the years, Victor only learned two terms, 'lait', and 'oh Dieu'1. His sense of touch seemed to be far more important than his sense of sight, he did not demonstrate an ability to distinguish right from wrong, and like Peter before him, he was indifferent to sex. He did however, learn some menial tasks, such as setting a table. Victor lived the rest of his life in the care of his housekeeper, and died in 1828 at the age of 40.

Kaspar Hauser

Kaspar was discovered in 1828 in Nuremberg, Germany. He was unsteady on his feet, and only spoke the phrase 'I want to be a horseman like my father is'. Kaspar was about 16 years old, but he behaved like a small child. It appears that for most of his early childhood, Kaspar was imprisoned in a cage, with hardly any contact with the outside world. When a mirror was handed to him he used to look behind him to find the person in the mirror, and could not understand how faraway objects appeared smaller than objects close by. Kaspar had a keen sense of smell. He detested meat and alcohol, and was offended by the smell of flowers. He loved wooden horses, and he thought the sky was full of candles. Unlike many other of the cases described here, Kaspar did learn much, but in 1833 he was assassinated. The mystery of his early life and violent death have never been satisfactorily answered.

The Indian Wolf-Girls

In a modern version of the Romulus and Remus story, two young girls were discovered under the care of a she-wolf in 1920, in Godamuri, India. The girls were taken to an orphanage in Midnapore (now part of Orissa). The children, Kamala, aged eight and Amala, aged 18 months, behaved exactly like small wild animals. They slept during the day and woke by night. They remained on all-fours, enjoyed raw meat, and were given to biting and attacking other children if provoked. They could smell raw meat from a distance, and they had an acute sense of sight and hearing. The youngest child, Amala, died one year later, but Kamala lived for nine years in the orphanage until she died of illness at the age of 17. Kamala did acquire a small vocabulary, but she remained very different to other children until the time of her death.

Research source - Feral Children and Clever Animals by Douglas Keith Candland; Scientific American, Were we alone? Jan 2000.

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1 Which, respectively, mean 'Milk' and 'Oh God'.

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