Anthropology: Nature vs. Nurture of Feral Children

Are feral children real? Or are they a product of our misinterpretation of autism and mental disabilities? Regardless, the stories of these wild children often cause a deep sense of fascination among people.

Because they indeed live fascinating lives, but also because they bring about several uncomfortable question about the essence of humanity. What makes a human? How do we define human nature? And more headache-inducing thoughts come to our mind when considering the existence of these children.

Still of the Jungle’s book, Disney’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s book.

Let’s take a deep dive in the case of feral children. Discover the lives of these unique people: whether it is a Native American girl who spent 10 years in nature before becoming the protégée of the Queen of Poland; or a young boy from Aveyron who would become famous in France; and more.

But to go deeper, this article will also have to explore the meaning of the existence of such children, questioning some of our most fundamental concepts: humanity, human nature and human consciousness.

Understanding feral children

The Roman she-wolf with Romulus and Remus. Sculpture by Walter Pompe. Photo by Studio Phillipe de Formanoir.

Myth vs. reality

Feral children have inhabitated our myths and legends for millenia. The legendary creation of Rome uses this very myth. Indeed, the legendary founders of the city, brothers Remus and Romulus, had a wolf as a mother. That is because, their real mother Rhea, had no right to have children as she was a Vestal virgin. To avoid a punishment and save her children, she had to forsake demi-god children. Luperca, a she-wolf, rescued the children and raised them as her own, until a shepherd and his wife took them into their home.

In reality, animals rarely take baby humans amongst their kind. Though it can happen, most feral children are human children who have been abandoned, lost or locked away from human society. Their lack of experience with human behavior and language leads them to become partially or completely desocialized.

Characteristics of wild children

Amongst the cases of feral children ever identified since the 14th century, all have displayed similar deficiencies. First, their means of locomotion. Most walk crouched or on all fours. Second, and most important, they do not know how to talk, and have trouble learning the human language. This might mean that they have a difficulty grasping our language grammar and sintaxis. Therefore, they might have not developped the same thinking process as other humans. For instance, one former feral child had succeeded in learning to talk but failed to understand the past and future tenses. Also, some of them have a hard time distinguishing three-dimensional objects from images.

Something even more unsettling: many wild children fail to recognize themselves in a mirror. Recognizing one’s reflection in a mirror constitutes a proof of self-awareness, hence why scientists use it to determine which animals are self-aware. Humans normally develop the ability to recognize their reflection around the age of 18 months. Failure of this test might mark the inability for someone to practice self-recognition and a lack of self-awareness. Therefore, what does that say about the level of consciousness of a feral child? Do they possess the ability to think and perceive the world like other humans? If not, can they develop this ability?

The list of characteristics does not end here. Feral children also struggle to develop technical abilities and dexterity. They tend to lack facial expressivity. And finally, most of them do not develop sexual desire as they get older. Which might seem odd, as most would believe the desire to reproduce is inherent to most human beings. But actually, sexual desire comes from the proximity to others. One that grew up alone can not develop affinity for other humans, as they have built no connection to the human kind.

Analysis of the former perception of feral children

Ukrainian former “feral” girl Oxana Malaya.

A quest for the genesis of Mankind

If feral children were usually the result of a sad twist of fate, abandonment or disappearance, some  of them were made. Indeed, in the past, philosophers, sociologists and scientists strived to understand how humans naturally lived before they became socialised. Philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that primitive humans lived in perfect societies, which became corrupted by modern practices. Called the “theory of the good savage”, this vision of early humanity became a focus point of many.

To understand if that theory had any truth to it, scientists carried experiments  nowadays considered as extremely unethical. These experiments consisted in putting babies in complete isolation or with animals to see what language they would end up speaking. This would reveal the the “true” or “first” language and social behavior of Mankind. Evidently, these experiments failed. The children ended up being mute or dying. But the essence of the belief remained; learning things, or being socialized, removed or hid the our original human state.

Importance of touch, communication and love

Throughout history, infants have not always received the nurturing treatments that they required to grow into healthy children. One can even easily look at somber historical practices of previous times to see how prevalent child neglect used to be.

In 18th century France, for example, foster homes used to keep infant care to the bear minimum. They avoided physical contact with the babies and simply fed them. This resulted in one in four children privately fostered to die before the age of one. Back then, babies were not considered as people. Psychologists had not yet understood the importance of loving, hugging and talking to a child for them to survive. Not only does this essential human contact allow babies to thrive, it also helps them develop certain parts of their brain.

Many feral children have grown up in neglect. They might have been illegitimate children (ironically, also known as natural children), or perhaps born with mental deficiencies or other conditions. Or maybe, to a family too poor to take care of them. This might have led their parents to abandoning them. Likewise, some might have obtained their odd traits (like being quadrupedal) from having malformations.

A cruel practice of the Middle-Ages amongst peasant families was to put the children they refused to raise with animals. Pig sties, sheep enclosures, or even with the family dogs… These inappropriate environments, usually unsanitary and devoid of parental warmth, became their shelter. But whether wild children grew up alongside animals or alone, their disocialisation altered their behaviors in similar ways. Violent defense mechanisms, avoidance of other humans, inability to acquire language, etc, were the result of complete marginalization from human society.

A modern reality

But neglect is not limited to the past. One unfortunate Ukrainian girl, Oxana Malaya, has gone through the cruel experience of growing up with animals. Born in 1983, neglected and rejected by her alcoholic parents, Oxana sought comfort in the family farm kennel. From age 3 to 7, Oxana lived with, and very much like a dog. She barked, walked on all fours, and even panted and cleaned herself like a dog. Instead of learning basic life skills from humans, she learned them from her animal companions. Thankfully, after years of therapy, Oxana was able to learn how to talk and adopt normal social behavior, though the abuse she sustained has permanently impaired her.

Famous cases and interpretations

The incredible story of Marie-Angélique Le Blanc

Cover of the comic Sauvage, biography of Marie-Angélique Le Blanc.

The story of Marie-Angélique remained cloaked in mystery for years due to a single lie. Indeed, after the former queen of Poland Catherine Opalinska decided to take her under her wings, she changed the date of birth of the Native American woman, making her nine years younger in records.

Actually, Marie-Angélique was born around 1712 in Upper-Louisiana. She belonged to the Meskawi tribe, also known as the Foxes. Her story started in tragedy, as a war against the French decimated her tribe in June 1712. Unable to take care of her, her family had no other choice but to sell her as a maid to Canadian Frenchpeople, who gave her her christian name. In an ironical turn of events, the original tribe of Marie-Angélique, the “Foxes”, will end up predicting her future. As, for ten years, the Native American girl will live in nature like the little canidae.

In 1718, a French noble woman living in Labrador, Madame de Courtemanche, adopts her. Along with her three biological daughters, they flee Canada in 1720 due to the rising hostility of local Inuit populations. They embark on a armed cod fishing boat, L’Aventurier, heading to France. Unfortunately, pirates attack the boat and had to disembarked on october 20th 1720 in Marseille, a city devastated by the plague. This led Madame de Courtemanche to issue several letters to the Court, begging them to take her daughters and herself out of Marseille, to no avail.

Escape and life as a wild child

Madame de Courtemanche ended up entrusting her adoptive daughter to Lord Ollive, a silk merchant living in the North of Marseille. There, Marie-Angélique befriended an young enslaved girl, speculated to have been from Sudan or Ethiopia. After being mistreated and probably raped by Lord Ollive, the Meskawi girl fled with her African friend to live in the woods.

For ten years, the two led a most peculiar life in the wilderness. To survive the freezing cold, Marie-Angélique found and enlarged animal dens, where they could safely sleep. But the girls did not speak the same language. So to communicate, they had to create a language of their own, a combination of signs, whistles and shrieks.

The two young girls had no other choice but to adapt to their environment. They walked on all fours, they fed themselves of raw animals and plants. Even after coming back to society, Marie-Angélique still enjoyed the taste of raw meat, feeling comforted by the warmth of blood. To guarantee their survival, Marie-Angélique and her friend also had to develop defense skills to fend off dangerous animals, which made them very violent. However, they could not defend themselves against the guns of their fellow humans.

Return to society

On september the 7th 1731, Marie-Angélique’s friend was shot to death, age 20. Around a day later, a feral Marie-Angélique was found in the Songy cemetary. Her skin appeared darkened with dirt. She moved like a quadrupedal animal.  Her capture marks the beginning of a series of hospice stays that will last for a decade approximately. It is when working in a hosiery factory that she regained memory of her past life. Her first steps towards social reinsertion was not without hurdles: many feared her due to her violence, and she struggled to eat cooked food. However, Marie-Angélique quickly regained her ability to talk, while also learning how to read and write, a feat for a wild child.

After becoming the protégée of multiple important figures – namely the Duke of Orléans and Catherine Opalinska – she becomes homeless after being kicked out of the coven of the Notre-Dame de la Miséricorde Hospitaller. Having suffered an accident, the Duke of Orléans had placed her there before his death in 1752. But in 1753, another notable figure took her under her wings: Queen of France Marie Leszczynska decided to give her an annual pension of 240 livres. Marie-Angélique died in Paris on the 15th of december 1775 of suspected empoisonment.

Marie-Angélique was one of the few feral children ever recorded to learn how to read and write. Her successful reinsertion in society could have been due to having spent the first ten years of her life within society (having learned several languages, social habits and behaviors, etc). Perhaps the fact that she did not spend these ten years alone, but with a girl of her age, was also a factor in her astonishing transformation?

Victor d’Aveyron, the poster child for wild children

Still of the movie L’enfant sauvage (the Wild child), with Jean-Pierre Cargol as Victor.

In 1798, two lumberjacks capture a little boy from the woods of Lacaune. Naked, completely wild and showcasing a strong aversion for humans, he is made into a spectacle for villagers to gawk at, until he escapes to the woods again. After being captured and fleeing for a second time, he comes to the Saint-Sernin village, where a police officer takes him to the Saint-Affrique Orphanage. He gets the name of Victor.

Deaf, mute and lacking most signs of enculturation, he is studied by multiple scholars, such as several members of the Mankind observators’ society and the abbot Bonnaterre. Most of them believe that Victor suffer from a mental disability, hence why he was abandoned. However, Jean-Gaspard Itard, who conducted majority of the research on the little boys condition, had another theory. To him, Victor suffers from nothing else but a lack of education, which means he can acquire certain behaviors. He is a young “savage”, which he believes is the “original” state of mankind. For, Itard’s theory is that humans are nothing outside of human society. This goes back to Rousseau’s belief in the “good savage”, except in the fact that Victor is not a true savage (one that has no relation to society over generations).

A misdiagnosis?

But all in Itard’s report does not add up. Indeed, some struggle to believe Victor truly lived alone in wilderness from such a young age. Bonnaterre in particular made sure to challenge some of Itard’s arguments in his report. For one, he noted that Victor, contrary to Marie-Angélique and many other feral children, prefered cooked food over raw food. He also had little survival skills: he did not know how to make a fire, which makes his preference for cooked vegetables odd. He also had no defense skills. Abbot Bonnaterre also brought attention to the fact that Victor had multiple scars on his body, and most of them seemed to have been inflicted by physical abuse. Therefore, it seems like Victor’s behavior resulted more from childhood abuse and abandonement than a life in wilderness.

Furthermore, doctor Itard strived to teach Victor how to talk, or rather grasp the concept of language. He considered this particular objective to have been a failure, as Victor never actually learned to talk. But interestingly, Itard seemed to have not considered Victor’s scars. One accross his larynx could have very much severed his vocal chords and made him mute (though this hypothesis has no clear evidence). In hindsight, many specialists believe that Victor was on the autism spectrum.

Nature vs. nurture

The notion of human nature can lead to confusions as it can acts as overly inclusive of exclusive. For example, saying that longing to have children is in human nature actually means that every person who does not meet that standard is not a human. Or, saying that the ability for empathy describes human beings leads to including other animals, such as orcas or bonobos, as humans. Assertions on human nature tend to come off as such blanket statements because the concept itself remains difficult to grasp.

It also engenders the impression that humans have no free will, as they can not overcome the limits of their nature. Indeed, one can never overcome one’s own nature, as that a nature creates the condition for someone’s very existence.

All that to say that many visions of human nature completely exclude feral children from humanity. Do wild children prove that one is not born a human, but must be taught to be human?

The sociological differentiation of the natural from the habitus

The habitus, or second nature

The reason why feral children have garnered so much attention for such a long time is because they challenge a very important concept of philosophy: human nature. What makes a human a human? What defines the essence of humanity?

A nature designates the very essence of a being. More than a simple definition of what we can deem human, human nature frames the very core of humanity. It clearly separates what is human, from what is not. For many, human nature is defined by the ability to have conceptual thoughts. For others, it is by the use of language. Colloquialy, it is also very common to hear that such or such characteristics is “human nature”. For instance, “humans are just selfish, that is human nature”. Or, “you will end up wanting to have a partner, that is just in our nature.” Basically, our human nature comes down to what we can not avoid to be.

And yet, all these concepts go out the window when we consider the existence of feral children. As, they prove that these particular traits do not inherently appear in all humans. If a teaching process does not happen, then a human can not properly develop this abilities – or at all.

Feral children from a sociological standpoint

Sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu or Norbert Elias have used one concept in order to discuss the case of human nature: the habitus. What one calls an habitus is a physical, psychological or moral disposition acquired by a set of individuals within a society. It represents, in a way, our “second-nature”, for a habitus becomes so engrained in a society and its individuals that they end up forgeting that it is not inherent to them, but must be learned.

The way we walk is an example of habitus. As well as the way we eat, sleep, give birth, wash ourselves, hold our children, kiss, hug, urinate, defecate… the list goes on. So, when considering this particular concept of sociology, it becomes difficult to assert with certainty that we do anything inherently, as most of our behaviors are acquired through a learning process – a process that differs from culture to culture.

Anecdote from “Techniques of the body” by Marcel Mauss.

Portrait of French sociologist Marcel Mauss.

In his article “Techniques of the body”, Marcel Mauss reuses the concept of habitus in order to showcase the interrelation of human physiology with human social norms and cultures. To make his case, Elias goes through numerous testimonies from a variety of cultures around the world. One particular testimony is known for calling into question our most basic belief on what humans (or human bodies) can naturally do.

The narrative goes along those lines: the sociologist visits a remote French village and learns of one little girl which fell ill with a cold. He thus decides to try why she can not seem to get better. Upon meeting her, he understands that she is unable to clear the mucus out of her lungs. To help her, the sociologist asked her to spit. The little girl was not able to do it. He then asked the adults to show her how to spit. But much to his surprise, the adults did not know how to spit either. Soon enough, he understood that her family and almost everyone in this small village had never learned how to spit in their lives.

This anecdote, amongst many others from “Techniques of the body”, proves that many things that we view as natural actually require learning, even seemingly biological mechanisms like spitting. And, it can also give us a clue on how much “nurture” we need as humans to become who we are.

Anthropological relevance

The nature versus nurture debate could send our head spinning. Especially when adding the existence of feral children into the equation. To the point that many believes that the entire concept should be tossed out of the window. But yet, it remains very interesting to explore, as it relates to many other disciplines, such as biology, sociology, spirituality…

But the case of feral children also speaks to a different dimension of humanity: the cruelty of abandonment and abuse. Cases of extreme neglect like the one of little Californian girl Genie, locked away in a dark room, beaten and prevented from speaking for thirteen years, can send shivers down our spines. Yet they keep happening to innocent children.

The desire to understand humanity will always be hindered by our irremediably multi-faceted nature. Whether we are violent animals transformed by society, or a social creatures seeking to investigate an idealistic past, we are bound to forever chase a original cause to our existence.

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