What makes us human? Are we born this way, or are we shaped and molded into what we are by society, with our own animal instincts subdued by our social mores? Indeed what happens when we strip away that touch of civilization and human upbringing? Throughout history have come tales of mysterious people who may shed light on the answers to these questions, in the form of what have come to be called feral humans. These are people who for whatever reason have grown up without human contact, in some cases raised by wild animals, and seem to have shed many of the hallmarks of what we consider to be "human." In the absence of the influence of civilization they seem to have crossed over that barrier that we like to think separates us from wild animals, and in the process have become in a sense wild animals themselves. These are cases that offer an intriguing glimpse into the lives of people who were raised outside of the world of humans and a look at what perhaps makes us human.
One of the earliest accounts of a feral human is the somewhat well-known tale of a strange individual who would come to be known as Wild Peter. In 1724, some hunters in a rural area near Hamelin, Germany were startled to see a boy emerge from some thick woods on all fours, who was described at first as being “a naked, brownish, black-haired creature.” They attempted to coax him closer so he could be captured, but the boy darted back off into the forest with amazing speed. The strange boy, estimated to be around 12 years old, had apparently been haunting the area for some time, always seen on all fours and allegedly able to climb trees with ease. He was never heard to talk, but growled and chuffed readily.
The child was eventually captured by the hunters and shown to King George I, who had been in the area on a visit to Hanover. The king was fascinated by the strange wild child, who seemed to display no knowledge of speech, walked about on all fours snarling, and would eat only raw vegetables and meat, as well as whole birds that he would tear apart, refusing to eat any bread or cooked food whatsoever. The untamed child showed a particular fondness for sucking the sap out of various twigs and branches, which he would strip of their bark before feasting on their contents. So enthralled with the wild boy was King George I that he had him shipped off to England to be studied by the most well respected academics. It was upon his arrival in England in 1726 that he would come to be known as Peter the Wild Boy, as well as simply Wild Peter.
Peter quickly became somewhat of a celebrity, often shown to visiting nobles at the King’s court, and people would flock to gawk at him as he scurried around on all fours and generally acted like a wild animal. He is said to have had no interest in table manners, he always slept on the floor, and was known to constantly try to pick people’s pockets. Wild Peter also purportedly displayed an almost superhumanly acute sense of hearing and smell. Attempts to educate Peter in general failed. He was unable to be house trained, or to be taught manners, how to read or write, how to sleep in a bed, or to be civilized in any way, and indeed he refused to ever say a single word, instead communicating through growls, snorts, and snarls. Due to the fact that he wandered off on several occasions, Peter was fitted with a brass and leather collar inscribed with his name in order to identify him if he got lost again.
Peter is estimated to have lived to be approximately 70 years-old, and throughout his long life in society was never able to learn how to speak or fully adjust to the ways of civilization, although he seems to have developed a taste for music and would reportedly often hum songs to himself. When he was examined by the Scottish philosopher and judge James Burnett, Peter was described as being able to understand language to some degree, but only able to utter the words “Peter” and “King George.” Peter would eventually pass away on February 22, 1785 and be buried at a cemetery in Northchurch, where he had spent his later years living on a farm.
It has never been revealed just who Wild Peter was, where he had come from, why he had reverted to such a wild state, or how he had ended up living out in the wilds alone. In recent times it has been speculated that Wild Peter perhaps may have suffered from a rare disorder known as Pitt–Hopkins syndrome, which results in behavioral abnormalities, learning disorders, and certain physical characteristics such as his coarse, curly hair, drooping eyelids and thick lips, but it is unknown if this was really the case or not. The mystery of who Wild Peter was and what led him to his wild life will probably never be fully understood.
Another of the earlier accounts of a feral human is the story of Marie Angelique Memmie Le Blanc, who would go on to become widely known as “The Wild Girl of Champagne.” Marie spent an estimated 10 years wandering through the forests of France surviving on a diet of birds, frogs, fish, and other small animals, as well as leaves, branches and roots, all while fighting off wild animals such as wolves with her trusty club and sharpened sticks. It would later be estimated that she had eked out a living in the wilds in this manner from when she was at least 9 years old, until she was captured at the age of 19 in 1731 by villagers from Songy, in Champagne.
When she was first brought in from the wild, it was immediately noticed that she was quite hairy and dark-skinned, with “claws,” and that her “fingers and in particular her thumbs, were extraordinarily large.” She would use these thumbs to dig through the ground for roots, as well as swing through trees "like a monkey." She was also known to eat any animals that were given to her raw, such as birds and rabbits, which she would deftly skin with her bare hands, refusing any cooked food. She was very weary and animal-like in nature, refusing to drink from cups but rather leaning over to directly drink from water sources, the whole time glancing from side to side like an animal, and she purportedly could run extremely fast on all fours. Marie was once taken on a hunting excursion where she proved to be able to easily run down and catch rabbits in this manner. Her only form of communication was a series of shrill squeals and shrieks, and she did not seem capable of normal speech at all.
Interestingly, after years of tutoring and a series of patrons, Marie proved herself to be quite capable of adapting to civilization. Unusual for a typical feral child, she would go on to learn to read and write French quite fluently and to be able to learn etiquette enough to fit into society. For a time she became a nun, before returning to rich patrons and would eventually die rather well-off in Paris in 1775, at the age of 63. The story of Marie Angelique Memmie Le Blanc has been criticized over the years for perhaps being heavily exaggerated or even entirely made up, although other historians, such as French author Serge Aroles, have remained adamant that the tale is likely completely true.
Another early case perhaps an even more famous tale is the case of Victor of Aveyron. In 1787, sightings began to pop up of a naked young boy of around 12 years old wandering through the woods near Aveyron, France. The boy apparently was very fast and seemed to be living alone in the forest, surviving off the land like a wild animal. After years of these sightings, in 1800 the boy was captured near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France. Upon examination, Victor, as he was to be called, was found to be covered with a variety of scars, suggesting he had had a rough, wild life for years, possibly his entire life. Victor was described as hating to be touched, and violently resisted all efforts to bathe him or to put clothes on him. He was also unable to speak a single word and generally shunned human contact, spending most of his time sulking in the corner in the shadows. On occasion he is said to have displayed sudden, savage outbursts where he would tear about and snarl wildly. Interestingly, he showed extreme resistance to the elements, and in one instance a visiting biologist experimented by putting the naked Victor out into the snow, where he allegedly showed no ill effects or discomfort from the cold whatsoever.
Although Victor was studied extensively by psychologists, philosophers, and scientists, it was never ascertained just where he had come from or how he had devolved into such a wild state. Neither could it ever be found just what sort of cognitive disorders or impairments he may have been suffering from, if any. Throughout his life among other humans, Victor was never able to be taught how to speak or act civilized, although a man who worked with the deaf by the name of Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard spent years working with him and eventually got him to bathe, wear clothes, and understand and respond to simple questions and commands. Victor of Aveyron would eventually die at an institute in Paris at the age of 40, having never really accepted the world of men.
Cases of feral humans go on right into the 1800s and well beyond. In 1845, locals of a rural area near San Felipe, Mexico, were surprised to see a young girl running about on all fours and joining a wolf pack as they descended upon a herd of goats. Around one year after this, what appeared to be the same girl was spotted hunched over a freshly killed goat, eating it. In this case, villagers were able to capture the mysterious wild girl, and she proceeded to howl the entire night exactly like a wolf. Ominously, her cries seemed to have worked, as it was reported that a pack of wolves emerged from the darkness to approach in what can only be described as a sort of rescue attempt. During the ensuing panic, the girl was able to sneak out into the night. She would last be sighted in 1852, when she was spotted apparently suckling two wolf cubs at the side of a river. When she was approached, what has been since referred to as “The Wolf Girl of Devil’s River” allegedly gathered up the cubs and ran off into the wilds, never to be seen again.
In 1867, a group of hunters came across what they originally thought to be a wild animal of some sort curled up and sleeping at the entrance of a cave in the Bulandshahr district of India. When the “animal” awoke, the hunters were startled to see that it was in fact a human boy of around 6 years of age, who scampered off on all fours to cavort about with a pack of wolves. The concerned hunters were able to capture the boy and bring him to the Sikandra Mission Orphanage, in Agra. There he would be given the name Dina Sanichar, although he was mostly referred to as the “Wolf Boy,” and would continue to baffle all who saw him.
Dina slept on the floor, ran about quite easily on all fours, and would rip off his clothes if anyone tried to put them on him. Cooked food was entirely shunned, but he would readily devour raw meat or gnaw on bones. At night he would forlornly howl out into the wilderness, perhaps trying to communicate with the wolf family from which he had been forcefully taken. Dina was also resistant to years of attempts to educate him and teach him language, and he would never learn to speak or write. Just about the only trapping of civilization he took too was tobacco, which he became hopelessly addicted to. He would finally pass away in in 1895 at the age of 34. It has been speculated that the tale of Dina Sanichar may have been the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s beloved Jungle Book series.
Stories of feral children continue right on into the 1900s. One of the most famous cases of all is that of the two feral children Kamala and Amala. In 1920, a Reverend Joseph Singh was surprised to spy what looked to be two very young children within a wolf den carved out under an abandoned anthill in the wilds near Midnapore, west of Calcutta, India. With the help of nearby villagers, Singh was allegedly able to rescue the two girls from the wolf den, shooting the mother wolf in the process. The children were found to be a girl of 8 years old, who would be called Kamala, and another child of a mere 1 and a half years old, who was named Amala.
The girls were filthy and “hideous looking,” running about on all fours and described as looking less than human. Their arms and legs seemed to be deformed somewhat from their quadrupedal lifestyle, exhibiting shortened tendons and joints that seemed to make standing up nearly impossible for the children. Other physical anomalies reported by Singh were unusually elongated canines and very muscular, misshapen jaws. Their eyes were said to be reflective in the dark, like those of a nocturnal predator. Kamala and Amala reportedly slept curled up on the floor next to one another, and when they were awake they would pace, growl, snarl, and eat nothing but raw meat, which they would eat from a bowl on the ground. They also avoided humans, often attempting to bite or scratch those who came near them and absolutely refused to be bathed or dressed. They were purportedly mostly nocturnal, had terrific night vision, and displayed incredibly acute senses of smell and hearing. Although they were always naked, the children seemed to show no discomfort in the cold, and indeed tended to not show any sort of emotion at all other than fear. At night, they would constantly howl like wolves. They possessed no apparent ability to speak or even understand what was said to them.
Sadly, little Amala did not last long in this new environment, and died of a kidney infection on September 21, 1921. Kamala, who showed no sign of mourning or emotion on the passing of her companion, would eventually fare much better, becoming more approachable and even learning to walk upright at times, although she would revert to all fours if she wanted to go somewhere quickly and clearly preferred this mode of locomotion. She also learned around 50 words of language and gained a rudimentary understanding of what was said to her. Kamala even learned to stomach cooked food to some degree, although she much preferred it raw. However, she never did fully adjust to civilized life, and died of tuberculosis on November 14, 1929 at the age of 17 years old, still quite wild in her ways.
The case of Kamala and Amala has gone on to become one of the most famous accounts of feral children there is, and at the time it was widely covered in the media. However, the case has come under a good amount of criticism in recent times that casts doubt over how much of it is actually true. For one, Singh’s diaries that he claimed to have kept every day during the time were found to be written years after the fact. There is also the point that there are few if any independent sources that can corroborate what Singh claims, and we only have what he says happened in his first hand accounts. Adding to the confusion is the existence of a variety of versions of the story, such as the one in which Singh was given the two girls by a man who lived in the jungle and kept them in a cage, rather than rescuing them himself. I would also add that some of the elements of the story seem a bit farfetched, such as the detail given by Singh that the girls displayed reflective eyes at night like a cat’s. This seems like a rather sensationalist detail considering that humans simply don’t have a tapetum lucidum, which is the part of the eye in some animals that causes this effect. No amount of living in the wilderness is going to cause a human being to spontaneously evolve these. Regardless of how authentic the tale is, the case of Kamala and Amala has become one of the most widely known cases of purported feral children.
Sharing some similarities to this case is the story of a boy who was found in 1972 playing with a group of wolf cubs in the forest of Musafirkhana, about 20 miles from Sultanpur, in India. The boy was estimated as being about 4 years old, and exhibited some unusual physical traits. His skin was incredibly dark, practically pitch black, his hair thick and matted, his knees, elbows and palms were covered in rough callouses, his nails were long and hooked, and his teeth were reportedly sharpened to points like fangs. The boy readily bonded with dogs and jackals, but would not let humans approach him, and he would eat only live poultry, which he would kill and eat raw, showing a particular liking for their blood. The boy, who would be known simply as Shamdeo, was nocturnal and never walked upright. Shamdeo eventually learned to eat cooked food, and although he never spoke he was able to pick up some sign language. In 1978 he was renamed Pascal and moved to Mother Theresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying, in Lucknow, where he would spend his remaining years until his death in 1985.
Wolves are not the only animal said to have brought up humans amongst their own. In 1912 we have the story of the Leopard Boy of India. Within the pages of a 1920 edition of the journal for the Bombay Natural History Society is a curious report written by an EC Stuart Baker. According to the account, in 1912 a 2-year-old boy was carried off into the night by a leopardess in the North Cachar Hills near Assam. At the time it was assumed he had been killed and eaten, but 3 years later hunters killed a leopardess in the jungle and found three cubs, one of which seemed to be a 5-year-old human boy. It was ascertained that he was the very child who had gone missing and he was returned to his family, although he was a bit less than human than when he had left.
The Leopard Boy reportedly ran about on all fours “as fast as an adult man can run,” and could dodge around brush, trees, and other obstacles with fluid ease. On his knees were rough callouses, his toes were bent up almost at right angles, and his hands and feet were also purportedly covered in very tough skin. The boy could not speak, instead issuing guttural growls and snarls, and at first he could not be approached, as he would lash out to bite or fight with anyone who came close. He had a disconcerting habit of running about to catch village chickens, which he would kill with his teeth and bare hands and devour raw. Indeed he refused to go anywhere near cooked food. The Leopard Boy would eventually learn to speak and walk upright, but he would never adjust to his new home and would later go blind from cataracts before his death.
In 1937, a man named George Maranz apparently visited an insane asylum in in Bursa, Turkey, where he was introduced to a girl who was claimed to have been raised by bears and found amongst them. According to the stories, hunters had shot a protective mother bear only to be attacked by what they called a “wood spirit.” It turned out that this wood spirit was a young, human child who displayed decidedly bear-like mannerisms and vocalizations. She was likewise described as being very well-built for her age and extremely vicious, as well as refusing cooked food and sleeping on the floor in a corner. Villagers of the area in which she was found claimed that a bear had kidnapped a 2-year-old child there 14 years prior, and it was widely believed that the girl in the asylum was the very same.
In 1954, a young girl of 5 named Marina Chapman was kidnapped from her village in a remote area of Colombia and was later abandoned by her captors and left for dead in the jungle. She was then adopted by a group of capuchin monkeys, who she lived among for the next 5 years, eating berries, roots, and fruit just as they did, sleeping in holes in trees and moving about and climbing on all fours just like a monkey. She would play in the trees with them and they would groom each other. When she was finally rescued by hunters in 1959, she had mostly lost her ability to speak language, and from her hardships that she would face afterwards one tends to think she would have been better off with the monkeys.
The hunters sold Marina to a brothel and into slavery, after which she escaped and survived homeless on the streets. In later years she would be adopted by a family and find work as a housekeeper before finally moving to settle in Bradford, Yorksire, in the U.K. in 1977. She would go on to be happily married and have children. Marina Chapman would go on to co-author a book with her youngest daughter, Vanessa James, chronicling her feral experiences, titled The Girl With No Name.
From 1960 comes the rather bizarre tale of the “Gazelle Boy” from Syria. In 1960, anthropologist Jean-Claude Auger was on a journey across the Sahara Desert and allegedly heard from the nomads there the tale of a feral child not far away. Auger went to investigate and claimed to have seen a naked child speedily galloping among a herd of gazelles. This mysterious boy was said to have mostly darted about on all fours, but would on occasion assumed a bipedal stance to scan the horizon. The wild child was claimed to react and twitch his ears and facial expressions in a manner very similar to the gazelles around him, and seemed to be jumpy and weary of predators. For food, he was observed to feed off grasses and roots directly with his teeth, similar to the animals around him, and his teeth had apparently become flattened like his large herbivore companions. Unfortunately, Auger was unable to ever get close to the Gazelle Boy, and an attempt in 1966 to capture him in a net attached to a helicopter met with failure. The mysterious Gazelle Boy was never captured and it is unknown who he was or what became of him.
An even more bizarre tale is of an 8-year-old boy named Sujit Kumar, who was found on a road in Fiji in 1978 flapping his arms like wings and clucking like a chicken. When he was brought in he ran about acting like a chicken, squatted atop chairs as if roosting, and would peck at his food rather than use his hands to eat, and indeed he seemed to be unable to even hold a spoon. He didn’t speak, but rather made rapid clicking sounds with his tongue. It was learned later that his parents had locked him in a chicken coop at a very young age, after which his mother had committed suicide and his father had been murdered. He was adopted by his grandfather, who continued to keep him locked up in the coop. In his years confined with the chickens, Sujit had learned to act like them and mimic their behavior. He was eventually adopted by an Elizabeth Clayton, and learned to speak and act human again.
Stories of feral humans have continued right up into surprisingly modern times. One well-known fairly recent case is that of John Ssebunya, also known as "The Monkey Boy of Uganda." At the age of 3 or 4, John ran away from home in Uganda in 1988 after witnessing the horrific sight of his alcoholic father murdering his mother. He ran and ran out into the jungle and disappeared. 3 years later, in 1991, he was found living amongst a group of vervet monkeys by a woman collecting firewood. Like many other cases of feral children, John displayed the same sort of behavior as the animals he had been living with, in this case walking about like a monkey, climbing like one, eating only food that the monkeys had been eating, such as roots, nuts, sweet potatoes and cassava, and generally avoiding human contact at first. He also was unable to speak, instead chattering like a monkey. His knees and elbows were heavily calloused, his nails had grown long and curved, and he was very hairy. After being put in an orphanage for while, a family eventually took John in and he would learn to adapt to his new environment. Unlike many feral children, John was ultimately able to learn human language again, and indeed he has become a rather good singer, often touring with The Pearl of Africa Children's Choir.
In 1991, 8-year old Oxana Malaya was found living amongst dogs in Ukraine. As a toddler, Oxana had been confined to a dog kennel behind the home of her neglectful and abusive alcoholic parents. For 6 years Oxana lived amongst the dogs, with little to no human contact at all. As a result, she was raised more like a dog than a human, and picked up many of their habits and mannerisms. When she was found, Oxana walked about on all fours and panted with her tongue hanging out just like a dog. She would also bare her teeth and snarl or bark when approached. Oxana could not speak other than the words “yes” and “no,” but rather mostly barked like a dog, she sniffed at food and ate it without using her hands, and she crouched and slept in the manner of dogs. She is also claimed to have developed extremely acute senses of smell, sight, and hearing. Oxana eventually learned to speak and walk upright again, but she remains mentally impaired. She currently lives at a mental institute in Odessa, and is charged with taking care of the facility’s farm animals.
Similar to Oxana’s case is that of a young girl simply known as Madina. Found by social workers in Russia in 2013, she was 3-years-old and had apparently spent her whole life being raised by a pack of feral dogs. When she was found she was naked, nimbly ran about on all fours, and barked and snarled at her “rescuers.” She knew only two words, “yes” and “no.” When Madina was examined she was found to be physically healthy, she has quickly picked up language, and is thought to be young enough that she can adjust to normal life again.
Not all feral humans are children. In 2007, a naked, grown woman of around 27 years of age was caught as she tried to steal food in a remote village in Ratanakiri province of Cambodia. It was later found that she was the daughter of the village policeman, who recognized her from a distinctive scar on her arm. The girl, named Rochom P’ngien, had gone missing in 1988, when she was 8-years old, along with her 6-year-old sister as they had been out tending to their water buffalo. They had been presumed to have gotten lost in the jungle and died.
Rochom was practically unrecognizable when she was found. She was filthy, covered with scars, and her hair was a matted mess. She did not walk upright, but rather on all fours, and she was unable to speak, instead resorting to gestures and grunts, able only to say the words "father", "mother" and “stomachache." Over the next several years she learned to bathe and dress herself, but she was quick to tear off her clothes at a moment's notice as well, and was very picky about what she ate, to the point that she was at least once hospitalized for malnutrition. The mysterious woman eventually learned to speak some words of her language, as well as some social skills such as eye contact and smiling, but never gained more than a rudimentary communication ability. Rather than eat and sleep within her family’s home, she took to living in a chicken coop on the property and mostly ate alone. Rochom was also prone to constantly running away from home, sometimes for up to a month at a time, before finally returning from the jungle. In one such incident in 2010, she reportedly vanished for 11 days, after which she was found at the bottom of a 10 meter deep latrine in the jungle.
In later years there has been some doubt cast onto the woman’s true identity. In July of 2016, a man named Pel was traveling through the area from Vietnam's Gai Lai province and claimed that the woman was his long missing daughter, who he said was named Tak and had vanished from her village in 2006. After 2 weeks of analyzing various documentation and testimony provided by Pel in an effort to prove she was indeed his daughter, authorities eventually granted them custody of the mysterious woman and she was brought back to Vietnam. What exactly happened to the "Cambodian Jungle Girl" in the years between when she disappeared and when she was found remains a mystery.
There are far more tales of feral humans than I have been able to cover here, a startling amount of them in fact. There sees to be a certain innate attraction we have to these stories and they have become so intertwined with exaggeration, myth, and legend that it is often difficult to tell where fantasy ends and reality begins. However, such accounts are always fascinating and hold deep mysteries and potential insight into human nature. What do these mysterious people tell us about the human condition? Are we made human by our surroundings, culture, and language? Are we civilized and tamed by society, yet harbor within us a more animalistic side that lurks beneath the surface, pulsing underneath the veneer of civilization? It seems that with these accounts of feral people we get a glimpse into that animal side, to see a raw, wild aspect to our nature that most of us will never experience, and perhaps this peek into this animal nature can give us insight on just what it means to be human.